Bill to change graduation requirements put on hold

The grassroots parents group Save Our Schools New Jersey lobbied lawmakers hard along State House hallways Monday — urging them to defeat a bill that would change how school kids qualify to graduate.

“Parents hate this bill,” said Julia Sass Rubin, chair of Save Our Schools New Jersey. “We’ve gotten over 3,000 emails and phone calls to legislators in just a couple of days.”

The bill would allow the state to give graduation exit tests to high school students at any grade level. It comes after an appeals court recently ruled that the state’s current PARCC testing program is illegal. Parents fumed.

“Putting that kind of pressure on them at that age, I feel it is completely and totally inappropriate, as a parent and as someone who tries to do what’s best for all of the children,” said Anna Polozzo, a member of the Toms River School Board.

New Jersey had required students to take highly controversial PARCC exams in algebra I and sophomore English to be eligible for graduation. But that conflicted with state law which requires a single, 11th grade exam. The bill, which already passed the Senate, would abolish the 11th grade test requirement and permit multiple tests at any high school grade. Plus, it would ban parents or students from opting out of state tests.

“In my district, it’s going to make it much more difficult for many students to graduate. In my district, also, we have a fair number of parents who opt their children out of these tests, and we feel that’s their right to do so,” said Darcie Cimarusti, president of the Highland Park Board of Education.

The bill’s sponsor argued that the court’s decision required a legislative response.

“And so what we’re doing here today is actually codifying what the court’s decision was,” said Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt.

But parents pointed out there was no need for the bill because the court last week issued a consent order. It let current graduation standards apply for juniors and seniors, giving the state time to work out new testing rules for sophomores, freshmen and future classes.

According to the Education Law Center, who was one of the litigants, the order would “ … eliminate any need for an immediate legislative remedy” and “legislators should not be forced to vote on those changes under the guise of an emergency that no longer exists.”

“It’s really like taking a sledgehammer to a tiny nail. Why do you need a law that does so much more and does so much damage to fix a problem that isn’t broken. We don’t have a need for this legislation,” said Rubin.

In the end, the Assembly session concluded without the bill coming up for a vote. The lobbying pressure had worked, at least for Monday.

“I think all of our offices were called by Save Our Schools or NJEA. Yes, a lot of people were getting phone calls and getting emails. The bottom line is that people were hearing that this was going to open the door to any assessments and any amount of assessments. That’s untrue, so as I said, we need to go back and just make sure our members are comfortable,” Lampitt said.

Gov. Phil Murphy had no official comment on the bill, so for now it will sit while its supporters work with colleagues to find a compromise.