A legal settlement over the state’s tough new high school graduation requirement is being celebrated by advocates but may have limited impact, since it does not create new ways to meet the requirement and does not substantially change the alternative route to a diploma called a portfolio review.
Portfolios use a sample of student work, rather than a test like the controversial PARCC exam, to show that the student has achieved the required level of knowledge or skill. Several thousand students are using portfolios to graduate this year, and lawyers who sued the Department of Education say the settlement will help those students by keeping parents informed of their graduation status, extending the deadline for portfolio submissions, and reinforcing rules of the portfolio process that some districts may not be following.
Yet with graduation ceremonies little more than a month away, the majority of students who needed to use portfolios had probably already submitted them before the settlement was announced last week. In addition, the settlement only affects current seniors, leaves unclear how portfolio appeals will work in future years, and does not affect the ongoing battle over using the PARCC test as the state’s high school exit exam.
For students and parents, the most important effect may be to ensure that they and their school districts are aware of how the portfolio process works. The settlement says that by this Friday, May 13, districts must notify parents if their child still needs to submit a portfolio to qualify for graduation, including parents of special-education students whose portfolios were previously deemed unsatisfactory.
“If you haven’t found your way through the maze and satisfied the state testing requirement, you have to get clearly notified that this pathway is available, and there has to be district support for students to actually complete it,” said Stan Karp of the Education Law Center. The ELC and the American Civil Liberties Union represented a group of students and parents in the legal complaint against the DOE.
Friday is the last day that portfolio appeals may be submitted to the DOE in time to guarantee that they will be processed before graduation ceremonies are held.
To address students who do not make this Friday’s deadline, the settlement says districts can continue assembling portfolios for students and sending them to the DOE for review until September 1. Districts may, if they wish, allow students to walk in graduation ceremonies even if their portfolios are still being evaluated and have not yet been declared complete.
“Through this settlement, we hope to remove some of the hurdles the department placed in front of students, as the window of time before graduation rapidly closes,” ACLU-NJ legal director Ed Barocas said.
Portfolios typically include analyses of texts and explanations of the solutions for a series of math problems. Portfolio submissions are the last resort for high school seniors who have not taken or not passed PARCC or any of the other tests that satisfy the graduation requirement, such as the SAT or military ASVAB exam.
The portfolio process was created in 2010 and became more important when the DOE announced that PARCC would become the new state graduation exam. Tens of thousands of students opted not to take the test last year or failed, putting them at risk of not graduating. While many have likely taken alternative exams, the DOE estimated that 10,000 portfolio appeals could be submitted this year, based on an informal survey of districts in March. So far 6,000 have been submitted, suggesting that the final total may be lower than the estimate.
In cases where a district decides a student’s portfolio is not satisfactory and the graduation requirement has not been met, the settlement says districts should provide parents and the DOE with written explanations, let the student know the matter is being sent to the DOE for review, and notify them of their right to appeal the decision.
Another section requires the DOE to survey districts monthly on the number of seniors who still have not met the graduation requirement from June to September and provide the ELC with the data, broken down by district and student subgroups. This will allow the organization “to monitor the impact of the new graduation policies, particularly on at-risk groups of students,” ELC said.
According to the ELC and ACLU, the settlement shifts primary authority over this year’s portfolio reviews from the DOE to districts, and expands the kinds of materials that can be used to build portfolios.
“Districts — rather than the NJDOE — will determine whether a student has met graduation proficiency standards,” ELC said in a press release. “The NJDOE will review portfolios ‘only to verify completion of a portfolio and provide technical assistance to districts upon request.’”
The DOE, however, says the makeup and processing of portfolios will remain largely the same, and the agreement simply reinforces and clarifies the existing system. The distinction may be semantic. Districts will continue to help students craft portfolios that meet the requirements, and DOE staffers will continue to ensure they are “complete.” If the DOE determines a portfolio does not meet state standards, the agency will return it to the district for correction.
Another provision notes that students can satisfy the portfolio review by completing a set of specially prepared math and language problems, called Constructed Response Tasks or CRTs; or by submitting prior graded coursework that demonstrates proficiency in math and English language, or both.
In previous announcements, including an October 2015 memo to districts, the DOE said portfolios had to consist specifically of CRTs, which had to show the students had academic skills reflective of the Common Core learning standards. PARCC is likewise designed to test those standards.
Karp said he believes the settlement now allows districts to put coursework in portfolios that shows a student’s mastery of statutory learning standards but not necessarily Common Core standards. But an agency spokesman said this week that districts were always allowed to submit prior graded coursework, and the coursework still must demonstrate the student’s proficiency in the same skills that the Constructed Response Tasks demonstrate.
Karp said the parts of the settlements intended to help special-education students and English language learners get through portfolio review were especially important. Some districts had incorrectly told their special-education students they could not use portfolios, he said.
The suit was broadly aimed at helping students and families who may have been blindsided by what the ELC, ACLU, and other advocates describe as the DOE’s illegal and rushed implementation of the revised graduation requirements. As the agency conceded in the settlement, it announced the new system by memo instead of following the proper procedure for changing state administrative code, which requires giving the public prior notice and the opportunity to comment.
The settlement only affects seniors graduating by September and does not address graduation requirements for the following years. DOE is in the process of codifying its proposed rules, which would require students to take PARCC math and language tests in 9th, 10th and 11th grades, disallowing opt-outs. Those who do not pass could then take an alternative test like the SAT to fulfill the graduation requirement or submit a portfolio for review.
Alternative tests would eventually be eliminated. Current 7th graders, who graduate in 2021, and successive classes would be required to pass the Algebra I and 10th grade English language arts exams, with a portfolio appeal as their only option if their test scores were below the cutoff.
Karp has suggested that if the State Board of Education gives final approval to the new rules, as it is expected to do later this year, it could face another legal challenge because they conflict with state law. He said the legislature should revise New Jersey’s graduation statute, and noted that Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex) has introduced legislation that would block use of standardized assessments as a graduation requirement through 2020.
Karp also said that portfolio-style evaluations, if properly conducted, can be an effective alternative to high-stakes tests like PARCC. He pointed to a consortium of 28 schools in New York that uses a performance assessment system in which board members and external experts evaluate student work, which for high school seniors may include original science experiments, analytical essays, and higher-level math.