Civil rights and parent advocacy groups are advancing their legal challenge to the new graduation rules adopted by the NJ Commissioner and State Board of Education last year. On Monday, the organizations challenging the rules filed their opening brief in state court.
In September 2016, the State Board amended the regulations governing the requirement that students pass a graduation test in order to earn a State-endorsed high school diploma. The new rules designate the PARCC ELA 10 and Algebra I tests as state graduation exams and institute “transitional” alternatives including fee-based tests, such as the SAT and ACT.
A lawsuit challenging these regulations was filed October 21 on behalf of the Latino Action Network, the Latino Coalition of New Jersey, the Paterson Education Fund and Education Law Center. The NAACP New Jersey State Conference has also joined the appeal. The groups are represented by ELC and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ).
On Monday, the civil rights groups filed their brief in the state appellate court. The brief outlines multiple ways the new graduation regulations violate New Jersey’s constitution and state laws:
- The Commissioner and State Board acted beyond their legal authority in instituting new rules that do not conform to the specific requirements in the state law governing graduation testing. For example, the statute explicitly requires that all students be given an eleventh-grade graduation exam. The PARCC tests designated by the new rules as graduation exams are not 11th grade tests. This change is particularly harmful to students who are learning English, because they have less time to gain language proficiency before being tested. State education officials have no authority to enact rules that contradict the express mandates of the Legislature.
- The new rules undermine important protections for students enshrined in the same graduation law by restricting retesting opportunities and access to alternative assessments, which thousands of students have relied upon to graduate each year.
- The amended rules also restrict student access to the “portfolio appeal,” an alternative assessment required by state law for students who do not pass the primary graduation exam. The rules require students to take several other tests in order to access the portfolio, a restriction that contradicts the clear language of the statute.
- The “substitute” tests students can take during the transition period if they don’t pass PARCC ELA 10 and Algebra I are not all free and aligned to state standards, as required by the State Constitution. The NJ Department of Education has acknowledged these issues but has moved ahead anyway with the new testing regime.
- The use of fee-based tests as substitute exams will restrict some students’ access to high school diplomas. Low-income students will have more limited access to these options, and thus fewer opportunities to graduate and pursue post-secondary education and career opportunities. And because New Jersey’s at-risk students are more likely to be racial minority and English language learner students, the law will have a disparate impact on them in violation of the NJ Law Against Discrimination.
“In addition to undermining the state Constitution’s guarantee of a free public education for all students, these graduation requirements unfairly give favoritism to rich students over poor students,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. “These changes to graduation requirements harm the most vulnerable students, deprive students of options, and create a learning environment where not all students have equal opportunities to learn.”
“The fact that the regulations conflict with the explicit requirements of the graduation statute passed by the Legislature, in addition to violating our State Constitution and Law Against Discrimination, makes them invalid,” said Jessica Levin, ELC Staff Attorney. “We are moving forward with the case as quickly as possible because the illegal graduation rules affect this year’s graduating class and beyond.”
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