Op-Ed: Time to Fix the PARCC-for-Graduation Mess

Stan Karp | June 1, 2018 | Opinion
More than a dozen states are using the SAT or ACT for federal accountability to measure 'college readiness' without any link to high school diplomas. New Jersey should follow suit

Stan Karp
The Murphy administration’s plan to “transition” away from the controversial PARCC exams to new state assessments is a step in the right direction for New Jersey schools. But so far, the administration’s “assessment outreach” campaign, now underway, has not adequately addressed the ticking time bomb that the Christie administration left at the center of state graduation policy.

In 2016, the New Jersey state Board of Education adopted regulations that made passing the PARCC ELA10 (English language arts) and Algebra I exams a requirement for a high school diploma.

Unless these regulations are changed, the graduation prospects of tens of thousands of high school students will be in jeopardy.

After three years of PARCC testing, passing rates on these tests are 46 percent and 42 percent, respectively. Less than half the nearly 100,000 students who graduate annually are on track to satisfy the PARCC requirement. (Follow this link
to see the potential impact on your own district.)

Since 2016, most students have graduated by using approved alternatives to PARCC, such as the SAT or ACT. Last year, more than 60,000 students used these alternatives to earn their diplomas. Fewer than 30,000 graduated by passing the PARCC exams.

Yet the PARCC-for-graduation rules not only remain on the books, but also the state board just readopted them, including provisions that eliminate most alternative testing options beginning next year. Access to alternatives will be restricted for current sophomores, the class of 2020, and eliminated completely for current freshmen, the class of 2021.

Christie’s manufactured crisis

This is a manufactured crisis wholly created by Gov. Chris Christie’s Department of Education and the state board, one which Gov. Phil Murphy promised during his campaign to fix. New Jersey public schools have the second-highest high school graduation rate in the nation, surpassing 90 percent for the first time in 2016. Graduation rates have improved every year since 2011 even as course requirements for math and science have increased. Even more encouraging, gaps between student subgroups have narrowed.

Keeping the PARCC-for-graduation rules would sharply reverse this progress. New Jersey’s graduation rate would drop dramatically, and districts would be under pressure to prepare tens of thousands of “portfolio appeals” for students who have not passed PARCC, a cumbersome and costly process never designed to be a primary graduation pathway. Low-income students, English language learners, students of color, and high-need districts will face the biggest impact.

There is another problem with the PARCC graduation rules. They’re illegal. New Jersey’s graduation statute says the state graduation test must be an 11th grade test of state standards in math and language arts. Neither the PARCC ELA10 nor the Algebra I exam is an 11th grade test. This is a major (though not the only) reason the regulations face a legal challenge pending in the Appellate Division.

The New Jersey Legislature reaffirmed this last year, when the Assembly by a vote of 69-3 passed ACR-215, a resolution declaring the PARCC graduation rules “not consistent with legislative intent.” Similarly, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Senate Education Committee Chair Teresa Ruiz wrote to the state board, saying, “Clearly, the State Board of Education’s revised regulation … is inconsistent with and violates the intent of the Legislature in its passage of P.L. 1979, c. 241.”

Cleaning up the mess

Fixing this mess is totally up to the state; there is no federal mandate tying test scores to high school diplomas. Most states have eliminated such “exit testing” as unreliable and counterproductive.

Federal law does require math and language arts testing once during high school. More than a dozen states, including Connecticut and New Hampshire, are now using the SAT or ACT for federal accountability to measure “college readiness” without any link to high school diplomas. New Jersey could do that too, replacing the six PARCC high school exams with the SAT or ACT for all high school students. Such a change could reduce the overall amount of high school testing, satisfy federal accountability requirements, and provide a service to students, parents and families. It could also have a positive impact on college participation rates.

Ultimately, New Jersey will have to decide whether to repeal or revise the existing graduation statute or to develop yet another expensive, new test consistent with its provisions. But the Department of Education’s current “assessment outreach” campaign offers the Murphy administration a perfect opportunity to make good on the governor’s promise to eliminate the ill-conceived PARCC-for-graduation requirement and send a clear message about its plans to put better assessment policies in place.