In response to concerns raised by Education Law Center (ELC) and the American Civil Liberties Union of NJ (ACLU-NJ), the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) is expected to propose new high school graduation regulations to the State Board of Education (SBOE) soon. The regulations will attempt to codify new graduation policies first outlined in a memo from Education Commissioner David Hespe last fall.
In a January letter, ELC and ACLU-NJ informed the Commissioner and the Attorney General that the NJ Administrative Procedure Act (APA) requires the SBOE to issue new rules to implement the Commissioner’s proposed changes to the State’s high school graduation policy. Under existing regulations, high school graduation is tied to passing the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) or the Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA). NJDOE is eliminating both tests after this year as the State transitions to new high school exams created by PARCC, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a multi-state consortium. The new tests include English Language Arts (ELA) tests in grades 9, 10, and 11, and math exams in Algebra I, Algebra II, and Geometry. The computer-based tests are being given for the first time this March.
According to the Commissioner’s proposal, current juniors, sophomores and freshmen can satisfy the State graduation standard and receive a high school diploma through one of three options: 1) passing one PARCC ELA test and one PARCC math test; 2) submitting a qualifying score on a designated “substitute assessment,” such as the SAT or the ACT; or 3) completing the NJDOE’s graduation “appeals” process. In their request for new regulations, ELC and ACLU-NJ have asked the Commissioner and SBOE to clarify details about each of these options.
ELC and ACLU-NJ are also concerned about the potential impact of the new policy on at-risk students, English language learners (ELL), students with disabilities, and students with other special needs. The elimination of the alternative assessment will close an important pathway to graduation used annually by about 10,000 students, including more than half of all ELL graduates.
In testimony before the SBOE last January, ELC also expressed concern regarding the impact on at-risk students of using the SAT and ACT as a graduation standard, given that scores on these fee-based tests closely correlate to students’ income level. The NJDOE is proposing a graduation cut score of 400 on both the math and verbal sections of the SAT. In 2013, the approximately 6000 high school seniors in the state’s highest poverty districts who took the SATs had average scores of 410 math and 385 verbal. More than one-third, another 4000 students, didn’t take the SAT or ACT at all.
Under the new policy, many ELL, at-risk and other students may need to use the appeals process to obtain a diploma. In prior years, only a small number of students graduated through this process. An expanded number of appeals could place a significant new burden on high school guidance departments, especially in high poverty districts. ELC and ACLU-NJ are, therefore, calling for the new regulations to provide clear guidance on appeals, “including timelines, standards and procedures for accessing the appeals process, along with criteria for determining proficiency through that process.”
Following issuance of proposed regulations, the SBOE is required under the APA to provide for public comment on the new rules. This process gives all stakeholders – parents, teachers, district administrators, advocates, lawmakers and others – notice about, and the opportunity for, input on the criteria the NJDOE will employ to implement the new standards for high school graduation.
For years, New Jersey has had one of the nation’s highest graduation rates. The official graduation rate for 2014 is 88.6%, well above the national average. The graduation rates for Hispanics (80.6%), African Americans (78.9%), and economically disadvantaged students (79.6%) are also well above national averages. These rates have been sustained by a longstanding assessment policy that offers students varied ways, or “multiple pathways,” to earn a diploma. ELC and ACLU-NJ are committed to keeping these multiple pathways open. It is critical that any new high school graduation policy ensure students have a range of opportunities to demonstrate proficiency and obtain a diploma.
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