Court Challenge Likely for New HS Graduation Requirements Tied to PARCC Testing

John Mooney | August 4, 2016 | Education
New rules supposed to take effect in 2021 but critics, including ACLU, charge they violate state law

The Christie administration withstood months, if not years, of debate to finally see the State Board of Education yesterday approve new high school graduation requirements tied to the state’s PARCC testing.

Now, long before the requirements become fully effective, the next argument may be in a courtroom.

The State Board of Education took the final and expected vote yesterday that all graduates, starting in 2021, will need to pass the PARCC tests for Algebra I and 10th grade language arts to receive their diplomas.

There will be a back-up appeals process, one extensively used this year, and state Education Commissioner David Hespe said yesterday that the use of PARCC is just the next iteration of New Jersey’s longstanding requirement for a high school exit test. “Over the decades, that has served New Jersey very well,” Hespe said after the hour-long meeting.

The vote was unanimous, with one abstention from Edyth Fulton, the former president of the state’s largest teachers’ union, the New Jersey Education Association.

The Education Law Center and the America Civil Liberties Union have already been in a legal battle with the Christie administration over its current policies around graduation requirements, and a new challenge appears likely.

“We are in discussion with the ACLU to whether we would file an appeal with the [state] appellate court,” said Jessica Levin, an attorney with the Newark-based center, the chief critic of the state’s requirements. When asked the odds of such a challenge, she said yesterday, “We’re obviously taking a very hard look at it, and see substantial legal issues.”

The argument from the ELC and the ACLU is that the administration is violating the state’s own laws around high school exit tests, first enacted in the 1980s as part of a national movement to bring more rigor to the granting of high school diplomas. New Jersey law specifically defines that requirement as an 11th grade test in math and language arts, as well as an alternative process for those not passing the assessments.

In detailed comments submitted to the state board, the ELC and ACLU said that the new requirement for students to pass a wholly different set of tests – in this case typically administered in 9th and 10th grades – contradicts that law. “It is clear that the statute requires an 11th grade test,” Levin said yesterday. “On its face, this clearly conflicts with that, and the state board is not the one to be making that decision otherwise.”

The legal issues were subject of the state board’s closed session before yesterday’s meeting. Without directly addressing the possible legal challenge, Hespe said afterward that the state’s requirement of a high school test continues a longstanding practice.

State Board President Mark Biedron after the meeting echoed those comments, saying the challenge is more a “technicality.” He said, “This is what we’re calling an 11th grade test.” Biedron has been adamant that the state board would keep a close eye on how students are doing on the tests in the intervening years, and said it would consider a reevaluation of the process before diplomas are at stake.

The first two years are certainly a cautionary lesson, with less than half of students passing those levels in the latest testing conducted last spring, according to preliminary data released this week. In Algebra I, just 40 percent of students statewide met expectation, as defined by the state. The 10th grade language arts results weren’t much better, with 43 percent meeting or exceeding expectations. “When you look at that, it’s obvious why we need to look at this through a five-year window,” Biedron said yesterday.

The issue has taken on an overtly political tone; Gov. Chris Christie held an unusual press conference on Monday touting improvements in the latest PARCC results, without mentioning the graduation requirements.

After the state board’s vote yesterday, Phil Murphy, a main Democratic contender for governor in 2017, issued a statement decrying the administration’s decision and the state’s testing as a whole.

“The era of high stakes, high stress standardized tests in New Jersey must end, and I will see that it does,” said Murphy, the former banker and U.S. ambassador to Germany. “We must get back to the simple premise of letting teachers use classroom time to teach to their students’ needs, and not to a test.”