June 11, 2009 – Newark, NJ

Despite deepening state and local budget crises, the NJ State Board of Education is set to mandate tougher high school graduation standards and new exit exams that will affect every school district in the state. The new mandates, set for a final vote on June 17, would significantly increase requirements to earn a NJ high school diploma, yet Commissioner Lucille Davy and the NJ Department of Education (NJDOE) insist “there is no reason to anticipate that such curricular modifications would involve increased expenditures for school districts.”

Education Law Center (ELC) and others are challenging these claims, citing the failure of the Department to study the potential costs of the new mandates for local school districts and the experience of other states like Connecticut, which delayed a similar initiative after a study found implementation would require tens of millions of dollars in new State and district spending.  

The Commissioner’s proposals would replace existing minimum State graduation requirements with specific college prep course sequences for all students. New end-of-course exams would replace the current High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA). The new mandates would be phased in as follows:

  • Phase I requires Algebra I, Lab Biology and 4 yrs of college prep English for all new freshman who entered in Sept. 08;
  • Phase II adds Geometry, Chemistry, Physics or Environmental Science, and an “economic/financial literacy” requirement for new freshman in Sept. 2010;
  • Phase III adds a third lab science course and a third advanced math course for new freshman in Sept. 2012

The plan would authorize creation of a new category of State assessments called “competency assessments” or end-of-course exams that students would have to pass to graduate. Last year, the Governor’s High School Redesign Steering Committee recommended that passing six exams be required to earn a diploma.

These mandates were not in place in 2003 when NJDOE did a cost study that became the basis for Governor Corzine’s new funding law—the School Funding Reform Act.

“The SFRA formula doesn’t capture the costs associated with the increased graduation requirements and new tests,” said Stan Karp, ELC’s Director of Secondary Reform. “Before these mandates are imposed on New Jersey’s middle and high school students, we need a credible cost study and an effective implementation plan. Otherwise stiffer requirements and tests are more likely to reproduce the inequalities of the last century than prepare all students for the new one.”

NJDOE survey data show that less than half the state’s districts currently require all students to pass the mandated courses to graduate. But NJODE has not released any data or analysis to support its claims that no new expenditures are required to meet the proposed standards.  

In preparing for the FY2010 state budget, the Office of Legislative Services (OLS) asked the Department to explain the basis for its conclusions in light of a detailed Connecticut cost study that estimated it would take “$331 million over eight years to fully implement a similar secondary education redesign proposal” and “that some local school districts would need to increase expenditures to satisfy the new requirements.”

The Department’s response was that “New Jersey’s school funding formula provides adequate amounts of state aid.”  However, the Governor’s proposed FY2010 budget would under-fund the SFRA formula by over $300 million. OLS found that fewer than 30% of the state’s nearly 600 school districts would receive any increase, and even those increases would be significantly less than the formula calls for.  About 400 districts, including most “Abbott” districts, will be flat-funded and receive no increase in state aid.

The Connecticut reform plan noted that “An important lesson learned from other states that have moved to high-stakes exit exams is that the price of holding all students to a common standard is often far higher than anticipated.” Similarly the Center on Education Policy found that “The true costs of an exit exam policy are often invisible to state policymakers, because the expenses are being borne mostly by local school districts—and often by shifting existing funds away from other educational priorities.” (The Hidden Cost of High School Exit Exams May 2004)

For example, the Connecticut plan projected additional annual state costs of $30 million to provide extra supports for 20% of the state’s middle school students who score below proficiency on state assessments.

Similar efforts would be needed in NJ. A brief survey conducted by ELC on the impact of the new “phase one” mandates found that some districts were already seeing increased failure rates in Algebra I as course enrollments increased. With already tight budgets, these districts were struggling to maintain or expand academic support programs to help students meet the new mandates.

 “Personalized student learning plans,” (pslp), another aspect of the NJDOE plan, will also increase costs. These plans were originally intended for all students as one way to help them reach higher standards. But when questions were raised about the staff and resources needed to implement the program, the Department scaled it back to a two-year pilot effort in just 15 schools and two grades. Participating districts will receive $7500 each year “to assist with related costs, including curriculum materials, Web-based programs and related evaluation costs.”

By contrast, Connecticut’s proposed “student success plans” included $1.45 million for a state-supported web platform to allow the plans to follow students throughout their school careers and $24 million for annual staff support in middle and high schools to make sure the plans were developed and implemented.

Ultimately, Connecticut decided to delay its secondary reform plan, citing economic pressures.  Last November, Connecticut Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan said that even the $16 million budgeted to begin implementation in pilot districts “is simply out of reach.” Oregon, Virginia and other states have similarly postponed new mandates and tests citing the current economic climate.

The NJDOE also has been circumspect about the price tag for developing the new tests.  Connecticut estimated that developing five end-of-course exams would cost $40 million. That’s more than the estimated $35 million NJ now spends annually for all K-12 state testing. The NJ plan would commit the state to developing as many as eight new end-of-course exams.  The Department is currently piloting new tests for Biology, Algebra I and Algebra II.  It spends about $6.2 million annually to administer the current HSPA, and will spend about $4.5 million more over the next two years on the Biology and Algebra tests.

As the new tests are developed, NJDOE says its “goal will be to keep total costs comparable to the current High School Proficiency Assessment program.” This will be possible only if the Department secures large federal grants to fund its testing program or uses cheaper, standardized multiple choice tests that are ill-suited to measuring “higher order, 21st century” skills. Either way, the plan would invest large sums in developing and administering more tests which, by themselves, do little to help schools and districts deliver better educational programs and raise academic performance.

For More Information Contact:
Stan Karp
Education Law Center
email: skarp@edlawcenter.org
voice: 973 624-1815 x28

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Press Contact:
Sharon Krengel
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications
973-624-1815, x240