By Stan Karp

Four years after Governor Phil Murphy made a public commitment to eliminate New Jersey’s high school graduation exit exam, his Administration is rolling out a new test for the class of 2023. The decision will continue New Jersey’s 40-year policy of exit testing for diplomas, a policy most states have abandoned and that research
shows hurts the most vulnerable students, increases dropout rates, and feeds the school-to-prison pipeline.

On February 2, the State Board of Education voted to set the passing level, or “cut score,” for the New Jersey Graduation Proficiency Assessment (NJGPA) at 750, rejecting a lower score of 725 recommended by the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE). The push for the higher score was led by appointees of former Governor Chris Christie and by Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz, who made a special plea at the meeting urging the Board to adopt the higher score.

Higher ‘Cut Score’ Means Lower Passing Rates

The higher cut score will mean lower passing rates on the new test. Past results from the New Jersey Student Learning Assessments (NJSLA), upon which the new 11th-grade test is based, indicate that passing rates on the NJGPA will be in the 60% range for English Language Arts (ELA) and under 50% for Math. The new test is designed to assess 10th-grade ELA standards as well as Algebra and Geometry standards. In 2019, the last time state tests were given, passing rates were 59% on ELA10, 43% on Algebra I, and 32% on Geometry.

A cut score of 725 would have boosted projected passing rates on the new test by about 15% on ELA and about 20% on Math.

Given more than two years of pandemic schooling and a multiyear gap between when the test is being given and when students were first exposed to the material on it, passing rates could be significantly lower.

Current juniors will be the first class to take the NJGPA this March. Students who don’t pass must re-take the test or pass an alternative assessment to receive a high school diploma. Students must take and fail the new test before they can access alternatives.

The NJDOE has also indicated that the State Board will revise and likely raise cut scores on the alternative tests. Those scores had been frozen for four years as part of the consent agreement reached in Education Law Center’s legal challenge to the state’s previous graduation rules.

Bottom line: beginning with the class of 2023, tens of thousands of students will need to take more tests and get higher scores to receive a high school diploma. And some will be denied diplomas on the basis of the new assessment requirements, even if they satisfy all the credit, attendance, service and other requirements for graduation.

The impact could mirror the disruption caused in 2016, when the Christie Administration attempted to substitute the controversial PARCC exams for the previously used High School Proficiency Assessment.

Transparency and Data Lacking

In a sharp departure from past practice, the NJDOE did not release the data or technical reports its cut score recommendation was based on. In the past, before setting passing scores on new tests the Department publicly released detailed charts showing the results of field testing disaggregated by student subgroups and district factor groups. Such data was publicly available, for example, when the Board debated making earlier versions of a state biology test, an algebra test and the controversial PARCC exams a graduation requirement.

However, unlike previous graduation exams, the NJGPA has never been field tested. It was constructed from questions included on past state tests but has never been administered in current form.

An Open Public Records Request by Education Law Center that sought public release of “All reports, memos, presentations or charts prepared by NJDOE, the NJ Technical Advisory Committee, New Meridian or other professional consultants as part of the New Jersey Graduation Assessment Development Process” was denied by the NJDOE.

In the absence of data showing the projected impact of the new test on students and graduation rates, the State Board had an abstract, rhetorical discussion about whether 750 or 725 was the proper cut score for a test that has no record of “predictive validity” for long-term student outcomes and provides no useful instructional information.

More Tests Than Ever

New Jersey is one of just 10 states that still ties diplomas to an “exit test,” down from nearly 30 states that had such policies in the early 2000s. The NJGPA is the latest in a long line of tests mandated by a state statute originally passed in 1979. There is no federal mandate requiring exit testing for high school graduation.

Although the Murphy Administration suspended state testing and the graduation testing requirement for the past two years due to the covid-19 pandemic, both are back for 2021-22.

In fact, New Jersey schools are required to give more tests than ever this year despite ongoing pandemic challenges and a widely acknowledged mental health crisis facing both staff and students. In addition to the new graduation test and the return of the NJSLAs later this spring, the school year opened with “Start Strong” assessments, which for the first time were mandated for all districts. Many districts also give mid-terms, interim tests and commercially purchased assessments like the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP).

In response to mental health concerns raised by students and parents, some districts have modified testing policies, for example, canceling or reducing the weight of mid-terms. In Westfield, a mental health survey showed more than 50% of high school students reported high levels of daily stress tied to testing and grade pressures. A survey of 1500 students in South Orange-Maplewood organized by two student representatives to the local Board of Education showed similar results. “We are trying to push business as usual during a time that is not business as usual,” one of the students told the board.

But districts have no control over state testing mandates. Implementing a new exit test that makes it harder to get a high school diploma would be a bad idea at any time. But imposing it under current conditions simply sets up schools and students to fail. The new NJGPA will hurt students who don’t pass and won’t help those who do.

The Murphy Administration has missed repeated opportunities to resolve New Jersey’s recurring graduation mess and to remake the dysfunctional State Board of Education. The Legislature should step in and suspend the testing requirement for graduation and reset the debate about New Jersey assessment policies.

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Sharon Krengel
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973-624-1815, x 24

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