New Jersey’s official federal graduation rate, long one of the highest in the nation and a source of state pride, is declining. And the reason isn’t poor student performance; it’s bad state testing policy.
In 2020, NJ’s official federal graduation rate hit an all-time high of 91%.
In 2021, it was 88.5%.
In 2022, the most recent year for which graduation data is available, it was 85.2%
These declines were not caused by the covid pandemic or “learning loss.” In fact, the number of students who earned a New Jersey high school diploma increased in each of those years.
The state’s graduation rate declined because New Jersey remains one of just nine states that requires students to pass an “exit test” to receive a high school diploma. Beginning with the class of 2021, a new federal rule required the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) to exclude thousands of Students with Disabilities (SWD) from the official graduation count if their Individual Education Plans (IEPs) included exemptions from certain state requirements, including the state’s 40-year-old graduation testing requirement.
The exit test requirement was suspended due to the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. But in 2022, over 6000 students with disabilities were excluded from the official graduation count for failing to pass the state exit test. These students still received a state-endorsed high school diploma if they completed all the requirements in their IEPs, but they were not counted in the official total for federal reporting.
In the early 2000s, a high of 27 states required students to pass an “exit test” to receive a diploma. More than a dozen states have repealed their exit testing policies in recent years. Instead, in 2023, New Jersey introduced a new one: the NJ Graduation Proficiency Assessment (NJGPA).
The NJDOE has papered over the graduation rate decline by issuing separate “state” and “federal” numbers since 2021. But the federal rate is the one used for official accountability purposes under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). It is also the rate used to classify schools and districts for possible intervention under the ESSA.
Under the new criteria, 63% of New Jersey high schools had a lower federal graduation rate than the state rate for 2021.
Impact on Students with Disabilities Especially Striking
In 2021, approximately 2200 students were excluded from the federal rate as a result of IEP exemptions from credit or attendance requirements (for example, excuses from physical education classes or for extended absences). But in 2022, as the exit testing requirement was again enforced, the federal graduation rate for SWD dropped to 49%.
Current seniors, the class of 2024, will be the first to graduate under both the new federal rules and the new NJGPA. The combination is likely to produce further reductions in the graduation rate.
Also, as a result of the new rules students with disabilities are facing increased pressure to take more tests. Schools and districts concerned about their graduation rates are pressing SWD to take substitute tests if they don’t pass the NJGPA or complete a portfolio appeal, even if their IEPs include a testing exemption. Students who successfully complete one of the alternative assessments can be included in graduation rate statistics. At the same time, the NJDOE is also making it harder to include exemptions in IEPs.
What Can Families, and the State, Do?
Families with SWD should make sure each student’s IEP includes a clear statement of local and state graduation requirements the student will be expected to meet. Families should also resist pressure to take unnecessary tests. The NJDOE graduation rules state clearly that “Students with disabilities, through the Individualized Education Program (IEP), may have graduation requirements waived or modified and receive a state-endorsed diploma… Students are strongly encouraged, but not required, to participate in the portfolio appeals process.” [emphasis added]
“The NJGPA is the most useless of all state tests and has no instructional or diagnostic value,” said Stan Karp, Director of Education Law Center’s Secondary Reform Project. “The only thing the NJGPA does is put extra pressure on the most vulnerable students, waste days on the school calendar, and send valuable education funds to testing companies.”
An Education Week article summed up the reasons that “States Have Soured on the High School Exit Exam. Here’s Why”:
Exit exams are designed to hold schools and students accountable—to ensure students learn what the state says they’re supposed to learn in high school and are prepared for what’s next. But there’s little evidence that they achieve this goal. Research has shown that the presence of an exit exam doesn’t increase students’ academic achievement or employment rates. And severalstudies have linked these exams to increased dropout rates for students of color and students from low-income families.
Legislation to end the requirement (A4639/S3308) passed the State Assembly last June by a vote of 64-9. But so far, the State Senate has failed to act on the measure. The bill has the support of all the major education groups, including the New Jersey School Boards Association, New Jersey Association of School Administrators, New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, New Jersey Education Association, and the New Jersey School Counselors Association.
“Governor Murphy came into office promising to end exit testing,” Mr. Karp added. “Now he has a chance to make good on that promise by urging the Senate to pass A4639/S3308 and promising to sign the bill.”
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