Could 10,000 NJ High-School Students Miss Their Graduations?

John Mooney | April 19, 2016 | Education
Lawyers are negotiating to find an alternative to passing PARCC or other testing requirements, but no deal yet

With the clock ticking for as many as 10,000 high school seniors on the eve of graduation, lawyers met yesterday to try to reach agreement on how the state can address a challenge to its hastily implemented testing requirements.

At the heart of the debate is the state’s new requirement that students this year pass the PARCC exam or an alternative test to graduate. The transitional requirement was put in place last year, as the Christie administration moves to implement a more stringent exit exam based solely on PARCC, starting in 2021.

But facing legal challenge, a settlement has remained elusive. An administrative law judge yesterday heard oral arguments from the plaintiffs and the Christie administration but left unanswered whether any agreement could be reached by the end of the school year.

If no accord can be achieved, new legal challenges are likely if students are denied diplomas.

Lawyers from both sides wouldn’t comment as to whether progress had been made or whether an agreement was even close, but one said that time was running short.

“Whatever happens, it needs to happen soon,” said Ed Barocas, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union-New Jersey, representing families in the case. “The students have been put in an untenable situation.”

At issue are the state’s rules covering the next five years that call for students to pass from among of a wide menu of standardized tests to graduate, starting with the new PARCC exams.

[related]But with a majority of current seniors either not taking the inaugural PARCC exam last year or not passing it, there has been a surge in those seeking alternative tests — from meeting a minimum SAT score to an array of little-known military or other tests.

And even with those options — 21 in all, officials said – an estimated 10,000 students may still have to go through a further appeals process before the state. About 1,000 appeals have been filed so far, with a deadline in mid-May, officials said.

A group of families have challenged the system as running counter to existing law and regulation, and their lawyers yesterday met in Newark to make their arguments before administrative law judge Thomas Betancourt.

But most of the action appears to be taking place behind the scenes as the state scrambles to address what would be a massive surge of appeals.

David Saenz, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, also wouldn’t comment on the litigation, but said the state was prepared to take the appeals as they come in.

In addition, the state continues to tinker with the system to lessen the burden. Last month, it added another alternative route to graduation for students with limited English language skills; they can now pass the Accuplacer language arts test for ELL students.

“During this transition, we have continually looked for ways to expand the options available to students to meet the high-school assessment graduation requirement in English Language Arts and Math,” Saenz said.