Nearly two years after an appellate court struck down New Jersey’s high school graduation assessment rules, the State Board of Education has failed to adopt new ones. As a result, more than half of the 400,000 students returning to high school this fall don’t know what they have to do to graduate.
The former graduation rules were part of the PARCC testing era implemented during the Christie Administration. Although parents, advocates and legal experts repeatedly warned the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) that the PARCC-based graduation regulations contradicted sound education policy and state law, they remained in place until a 2018 court challenge invalidated them.
In the wake of that December 2018 ruling, a consent order provided multiple graduation pathways for students through the class of 2022. It also provided extended time for the State Board of Education to adopt new rules for subsequent classes.
But the State Board has failed to act. Even though state regulations require districts to “provide each student entering high school and his or her parents or legal guardians with a copy of the district board of education’s requirements for a State-endorsed diploma,” districts can’t comply because there are no rules in place for sophomores (class of 2023) or freshmen (class of 2024). A proposal for new graduation rules has been pending before the State Board for almost two years without receiving a final vote.
During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, Governor Phil Murphy suspended [link to pdf] New Jersey’s graduation testing requirements. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Education issued a waiver to all 50 states suspending federal testing requirements under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). However, both those moratoriums applied only to the 2019-2020 school year.
Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told states not to expect a renewal of the federal testing waiver, and, so far, Governor Murphy has not acted to renew the suspension of state graduation testing for 2020-21.
The case for Governor Murphy to suspend New Jersey’s high school exit testing requirement is overwhelming.
Most states have eliminated policies tying high school diplomas to standardized test scores. New Jersey remains one of the few that still does. A 40-year-old New Jersey law requiring a state graduation test in the eleventh grade remains on the books and has caused multiple rounds of upheaval in recent years. Unless Governor Murphy renews the suspension of state graduation testing, or the Legislature repeals the law, there is likely to be renewed turmoil.
While the State Board could still act this fall on its long-delayed proposal for new rules, that proposal itself has serious flaws. It would require the NJDOE to spend scarce resources and valuable time developing a new eleventh grade test that doesn’t satisfy any federal requirements and adds new burdens for districts and students during a school year when they are struggling with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The failure to adopt new graduation rules is only one example of the State Board’s dysfunction. The current Board is packed with appointees of former Governor Chris Christie. Seven of the thirteen members hold seats whose terms have expired.
It’s time to move on from the failed Christie-era testing and graduation rules. It’s also long past time for Governor Murphy to press the Legislature to replace Board members with expired terms. New Jersey students need a reorganized State Board capable and willing to work with the NJDOE to move the state’s public schools forward. With decisive action, Governor Murphy can secure both.
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