By Stan Karp

The resumption of graduation testing after a two-year pandemic suspension has put New Jersey high schools on the path to another graduation crisis.

New Jersey’s “exit testing” requirement for graduation was suspended for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years as the pandemic forced a halt to state standardized testing. But it’s back this year with unclear­—and potentially dire—implications for school districts, students and families.

Most seniors in the class of 2022 have not had a state test since they were freshmen, and many returned to school this fall still needing to satisfy the graduation assessment requirement. Ordinarily, students have repeated opportunities to do this during their sophomore and junior years. In fact, students in the class of 2022 were guaranteed multiple testing opportunities to meet the requirement in a consent agreement reached in Education Law Center’s (ELC) successful legal challenge to the state’s graduation rules.

But many of those opportunities were lost due to pandemic school closures and the suspension of state testing. There has also been reduced access to alternatives, such as the SAT. As a result, many more students than usual will need to satisfy the requirement during their senior year in order to receive their diplomas in June.

Typically, there about 100,000 students statewide in the senior class. The passing rates on the tests these students took as freshmen were 56% for English Language Arts (ELA) and 43% for Algebra I. The data indicates that tens of thousands of students entered senior year this past September without the scores they need to graduate. Moreover, most seniors are not scheduled to take state tests during twelfth grade, since generally they have completed the tested courses in prior years.

For many students the only alternative will be submitting a “portfolio appeal,” a time-consuming process with significant implications for schools and districts, as well as students.

Portfolio appeals are collections of graded student work that indicate mastery of state standards. They must be compiled with the help of school staff and submitted along with official school records and transcripts. Each portfolio is reviewed by NJ Department of Education (NJDOE) staff in Trenton, and this year, for the first time, the Department is only accepting portfolio submissions electronically.

A dramatic increase in the number of seniors needing portfolios could have a ripple effect up the ladder from schools to districts to the NJDOE with the potential to disrupt graduation plans for thousands. The most vulnerable student groups, including English learners (ELs) and special education students, rely disproportionately on the portfolio to earn their diplomas.

In 2018, the NJDOE reported that a total of 3,427 students graduated through the use of portfolio appeals. In 2019, the NJDOE said approximately 5,400 students used the portfolio for ELA and almost 7,000 students for Math. The number of portfolios could be many times higher this year, posing a problem for schools facing staff shortages and other pandemic challenges. Large urban districts serving many low-income students, students of color and high numbers of ELs could face difficulties processing hundreds of portfolios in time for graduation.

Anticipating this possibility, ELC wrote
to Governor Phil Murphy and Acting Commissioner of Education Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan last July citing an “urgent need to extend the suspension of the high school graduation testing requirement…for an additional year in order to comply with relevant legal obligations and ensure the senior class of 2022 has appropriate opportunities to graduate.” Absent a suspension of the requirement, ELC urged the Department to provide new testing opportunities to class of 2022 students to satisfy it.

Neither the Department nor the Administration responded to ELC’s letter. The Department has also ignored repeated requests to make public an estimate of the number of seniors who still need to satisfy the testing requirement.

The window for portfolio submissions opened on January 3, and already schools are seeing an impact. As one school testing administrator said, “We are definitely seeing signs of the exhausting portfolio process. We are trying to figure out ways to manage it with the amount of students that have to take it…Traditionally, the portfolio takes a very long time for the students to complete, especially our students in special education and/or those who are English Language Learners.”

Even at this late date, there are steps the NJDOE could take to avoid a graduation meltdown:

  • Make free SAT, ACT, and Accuplacer test alternatives available to all seniors;
  • Allow districts to score portfolios with NJDOE spot checks instead of sending every portfolio to Trenton; and
  • Allow seniors the option of taking the new graduation test being rolled out this spring for juniors (the NJ Graduation Proficiency Assessment) to satisfy the requirement.

The fairest solution would still be to suspend the exit testing requirement for students in the class of 2022, who have already lost so many opportunities during their years of pandemic schooling. After months of inaction by the Administration and the NJDOE, the Legislature should step in if necessary and suspend the requirement for the senior class. Denying a high school diploma to students who have satisfied all their credit, attendance and other requirements is simply not a fair and equitable option.

Stan Karp is Director, Secondary Reform Project, at Education Law Center.


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Press Contact:
Sharon Krengel
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973-624-1815, x240