Op-Ed: NJ Should Seize Opportunity to Step Away from Graduation Tests

A recent court ruling gives the state a chance to move toward ‘better forms of assessment, quality and fairness’

Julie Larrea Borst, left, and Lisa Guisbond
A recent Appellate Court ruling has opened the door for New Jersey to take a step away from discredited high school exit exams and toward greater education quality and fairness for all.

On December 31, 2018, the court struck down Christie-era regulations that forced students to take and pass PARCC tests in order to graduate from high school. However, the underlying New Jersey law requiring high school exit testing is still in effect.

In February, the Murphy administration reached an agreement with the Education Law Center and other groups who brought the legal challenge, to create a way for current seniors and juniors to meet the testing requirement. The administration must now decide what to do about current sophomores and beyond.

Gov. Phil Murphy ran on the promise of ending high school exit testing. We encourage him to use this moment to move forward on that promise. As the governor knows, requiring students to pass standardized tests to graduate does not help better prepare them for life after high school.

On the contrary, these tests have negative consequences, particularly for students with disabilities, English-language learners, low-income, African-American, Latinx and Native American students. These are the groups of students most likely to experience a narrowed curriculum as schools focus their resources on getting these students over the test-score bar. And they are the groups most likely to be denied a diploma because of a few points on a standardized test.

Other states are ditching exit tests

That explains why nationwide there’s a growing trend away from exit tests. Just 12 states still cling to this destructive policy, down from a high of 27. California, Georgia, and Nevada are among the states that have recently abandoned exit testing.

In 2012, Minnesota Rep. Carlos Mariani explained why his state chose to move beyond exit tests. “We’re trying to find a more intelligent way to do it, knowing that some students don’t test well, which doesn’t mean they’re not proficient.”

In fact, there are better ways to assess readiness for graduation, including performance-based assessments that promote challenging and engaging project-based learning.

The challenge of addressing inequitable access and providing every New Jersey student with a meaningful education is real. We know there remain substantial gaps in opportunity and access in New Jersey and across the nation. But exit tests only exacerbate opportunity gaps; they do not resolve them.

Tests don’t deliver great results

Defenders of high-stakes standardized tests say the tests “give value” to a diploma, but research shows the opposite is true. For example, studies show the tests do not improve employment prospects or college readiness. A 2011 review by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences found that high school graduation tests have done nothing to lift student achievement but have raised the dropout rate.

Exit tests give students who have worked hard, played by the rules, and stayed in school the status of high school dropouts. This creates an enormous and growing cost to society. Adults without a diploma earn less, are less likely to be employed or have a stable family and are more likely to be imprisoned. Testing experts like Harvard Professor Daniel Koretz call such policies nothing less than a “charade.”

New Jersey schools need not embrace a policy increasingly viewed by most states as destructive and reactionary. They can take advantage of the opportunity to move toward better forms of assessment, quality and fairness.