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Conflict Continues Over What It Should Take to Graduate High School in NJ

State wants to give students option of more than one type of test to graduate, but debate is strong over consequences, unintended and not

computer testing kids

The Senate education committee will today hold a hearing on a topic of debate that just won’t go away in this state: What, if any, standardized tests should a New Jersey student need to pass to graduate high school?

And, as data provided last week by the Murphy administration shows, the stakes are clear.

Deep in a 97-slide presentation to the State Board of Education, the administration provided the 2018 testing results for the state’s PARCC exam and a breakdown of how graduates fared in 2017.

In each case, the numbers of students passing the required tests were woefully low, setting students off on a path of pursuing a range of alternative tests that are soon to expire but the Murphy administration now wants to make permanent.

Among the Class of 2017, just 27 percent of graduates had passed both the required Algebra 1 and the 10th grade language arts tests taken in the early years of PARCC.

Alternative paths to graduation

Twenty-nine percent passed one or the other, but not both, and 33 percent passed neither. In all those cases, they were able to graduate through alternative tests such as the SAT or the Accuplacer exam.

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And while somewhat improved from the year before, the picture is not much brighter since then. In statewide results of the 2018 PARCC tests, first released this summer, only 51 percent of students passed the language arts test and 46 percent passed Algebra 1. In 2017, the passing rates were 46 percent and 42 percent, respectively.

Speaking to the state board, assistant commissioner Linda Eno said if the alternate pathways phase out as planned for the Class of 2021, the testing requirements would leave the state with “unintended consequences” where current sophomores who do not pass the tests could face the prospect of not graduating.

“This is a very surgical set of proposed changes in response to a set of unintended consequences,” she said about the state’s plan to retain the alternative ways to graduate. “With some sense of urgency, we need to clarify what our students will need to do in order to graduate from high school.”

But that’s where the debate comes in. State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the chair of the Senate committee meeting today, has pushed back on the proposal, saying that reducing the PARCC tests’ frequency and importance is only going to hurt these same students. She called the hearing for today — including an invitation of Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet to attend — to do “a deep dive into the data.”

In fact, she questioned why students only need to pass tests measuring 9th and 10th grade skills in the first place, saying the bar may need to be higher still.

Students who are ‘not meeting targets’

“Why is nobody talking about that?’ she said in an interview. “Why even go to school junior and senior year? It’s crazy.”

One of just 12 states with such laws, New Jersey by statute requires that students pass an 11th grade standardized assessment to graduate, albeit it allows for alternative paths as well. Ruiz didn’t dismiss concerns that the current test should be improved but said that discussion was missing the bigger issue.

Sen. Teresa Ruiz
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, one of the sponsors of the bill

“Let’s focus on the real matter that even while the PARCC scores are growing, there are still a bunch of students who are not meeting the targets,” Ruiz said in an interview. “That’s where the conversation should be focused, and nothing else. Not who’s taking the test and when are they taking it.”

Some on the state board, which will have the final say on the testing and graduation requirements, said they were not convinced that lessening the stakes of the test was the answer. Facing the pushback, the board postponed action on the proposal last week, and will take it up again next month.

“We are open to having discussions around having multiple pathways to success, and I’m supportive of looking at and improving the assessments,” said board president Arcelio Aponte.

Aponte: passing rates are ‘not acceptable’

“I recognize that having 27 percent passing ELA [language arts] 10 and Algebra 1 is not acceptable to us,” he said. “But it does give us a benchmark to determine if there are ways to improve that number across the state.”

Board member Andrew Mulvihill has been the most adamant critic of the administration’s proposal to scale back the requirements, and on Wednesday he contested Eno’s claims.

“I don’t think these are unintended consequences,” he said. “When we set the standards higher with this test, it was going to mean the whole education community would have to rise.”

“We knew the kids weren’t going to do as well, but if we don’t set the goals high, what does it mean to graduate from high school in New Jersey? It needs to mean something.”

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