Thousands of New Jersey students and education officials are still awaiting final guidance to determine what is needed in order to graduate high school this year. The holdup: The Legislature held a bill that would codify requirements after the Murphy administration asked it to wait pending a lawsuit on the matter.
The state appellate court has already issued a ruling against using PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) as a graduation requirement, which was previously required by Department of Education regulations. Because there hasn’t been time to choose a replacement test or develop new standards, the Legislature decided to respond by codifying the requirements in law this week.
The bill in question — S-3381 — was slated to come before the budget committee Monday. It would codify a state Board of Education vote to keep the now-invalidated PARCC graduation requirements in place for the classes of 2019 and 2020. Because no replacement for PARCC tests has been selected as of yet, 170,000 students have no clear pathway to graduation, less than five months away.
Hoping for chaos…
“This bill only does one thing,” Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) said at the committee hearing. “It’s to be sure that we secure the children who are currently in that paradigm and we eliminate chaos and confusion.”
Without naming names, Ruiz took PARCC opponents to task for leaving students mired in uncertainty, saying that chaos is “precisely what other groups want to see happen.”
Under a December 31 ruling, the Appellate Division of New Jersey’s Superior Court declared the state’s PARCC graduation requirement would no longer be valid. The three-judge panel ruled that requiring PARCC testing in multiple grades violates state statute which says that to qualify for graduation a student only must take one 11th-grade test in English language arts and math.
In response, the DOE filed a motion for partial reconsideration earlier this month. In return, it was granted an extended stay on the decision. The ELC has been asked to file a response to the state’s motion for partial reconsideration by Wednesday.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education said that the decision to extend the stay “keeps the regulations in place until the court renders a decision on the DOE’s motion for partial reconsideration.”
“We’re talking about a graduating class that’s upcoming now and we need to address the issue as quickly and as seamlessly as possible,” Ruiz told reporters after learning about the extension. “I don’t know what the long-term action plan is for this, but please recognize that there isn’t anything in this bill that pulls the wool over anyone’s eyes. We’re not changing the course of where we want to move to with curriculum and next-generation exams.”
Grandfathering graduates in
Legislators had hoped to vote on the bill as soon as possible because it grandfathers students in the classes of 2019 and 2020, allowing them to graduate if they have met the state’s graduation assessment requirements that were valid as of December 30, 2018.
Those requirements involve students passing the PARCC English Language 10 (ELA) and Algebra 1 assessments; or scoring well enough on other exams like the SAT or ACT; or making their case through an appeals process that includes a portfolio, test scores, grades, and transcripts.
The bill would also remove the so-called 11th-grade requirement mandating that students take a graduation assessment in a specific grade. Instead, it would require students to meet the state’s assessment requirements by the time they graduate.
The measure would allow a variety of exams (not just PARCC) to be used to meet the graduation requirement and clarifies that students who don’t pass the exam will be given the opportunity to retest.
For the graduating classes of 2021 and onward, the bill would order the Commissioner of Education with the approval of the State Board of Education, to develop the graduation proficiency assessment or assessments.
The long path to PARCC
The administration of former Republican Gov. Chris Christie in 2016 moved forward on a proposal to require students to pass the PARCC tests for Algebra I and 10th-grade language arts. That move was fraught from the start, and school districts were confused from Day 1. Some offered incentives for students to take the exams, while others reported high numbers of students opting out. Advocates have also been fighting the change in court ever since the law took effect.
When Democratic governor Phil Murphy took office, he did so on a platform that promised to eliminate PARCC altogether. Since then, his administration has been slowly phasing it out and removing some of its weight from teacher evaluations. But it also has been trying to keep it the test in place until the Department of Education can develop and implement a more suitable assessment option.
What’s taking so long?
Advocates however, are concerned that the process is moving too slowly and say immediate action needs to be taken to give graduating seniors a door to their futures.
“To be clear, without a legislative remedy, current high school seniors will be unable to graduate this spring,” said executive director for Better Education for Kids Shelley Skinner and Executive Director of the New Jersey Campaign for Achievement Now (JerseyCAN) Patricia Morgan in a joint statement. “Eliminating the test requirement is not an acceptable way to address this issue.”
Frank Belluscio, deputy executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association also noted that his organization is starting to worry that holding S-3381 is keeping students in limbo.
“We remain concerned about the gap resulting from the Appellate Division’s ruling and feel that Sen. Ruiz’s bill would have provided a legislative remedy for the immediate situation,” Belluscio wrote in an email to NJ Spotlight.
Meanwhile, the ELC — which leads the charge to knock out PARCC as a graduation requirement — is demanding that the DOE come up with another solution. One that they say will address every student, not just those who have met the old graduation requirements.
ELC executive director David Sciarra sent a letter to state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) last week warning him that Ruiz’s bill as written would exacerbate the problem and instead urged him to open the floor for public hearings on this issue.
“The bill would change the very standard for a diploma from ‘basic skills all students must possess to function politically, economically and socially in a democratic society’ to a vague and undefined ‘college and career readiness’ standard.” Sciarra wrote, noting that S-3381 not only addresses the classes of 2019 and 2020 but also “puts in place, indefinitely, new and unclear mandates for high school graduation for the classes of 2021 and thereafter. If adopted, the bill would leave current sophomores and freshmen without any certainty of the graduation requirements for their classes.”
As far as a timeline on this issue is concerned now that her bill has been held, Ruiz said she isn’t sure what the immediate future looks like but sees two clear routes ahead.
“[Holding the bill] is an administration ask and I’ll follow their lead on this. Ultimately they have two avenues that they have to do, either they legislatively fix this or they have to administer an exam in the 11th grade.”