New Jersey’s Special Review Assessment: Loophole Or Lifeline?

New Report Calls For Reforming, Not Eliminating, The State’s Alternative Graduation Test

Newark, NJ — August 22, 2007

Eliminating the Special Review Assessment (SRA) could dramatically raise dropout rates and threaten New Jersey’s claim to having one of the nation’s best high school graduation rates, according to a new report  on the state’s alternative route to a high school diploma. The report recommends significantly reforming the SRA process, but says that eliminating it “would, almost by definition, constitute bad public policy.”

“We have the highest high school graduation rates in the nation,” boasted Governor Jon Corzine in his 2007 State of the State address. “Whatever we do, we must keep and enhance the nation’s best school system.” The new report argues that ending the SRA would undermine those goals, especially hurting English language learners, immigrants and those in the urban “Abbott” districts, while doing little to improve school programs.

The report, entitled New Jersey’s Special Review Assessment: Loophole or Lifeline? was prepared by researchers from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, New Jersey’s Education Law Center, the Institute on Education Law and Policy at Rutgers, Newark and Newark’s Project GRAD. Among its key findings are the following:

  • The number of NJ students graduating via SRA almost doubled in seven years: from 7,925 in 1999 to 15,669 in 2005, before declining to 13,535 in 2006. In 2006, about 12 percent of all NJ graduates and one-third of all graduates in the urban Abbott districts used the SRA to meet state graduation requirements instead of the state’s traditional graduation test, the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA). (Both SRA & HSPA students must also earn at least 110 credits and meet other local graduation requirements to receive a diploma.)
  • If the SRA were eliminated, the biggest impact would be on English language learners, immigrants and those in the urban “Abbott” districts. However, because nearly 60% of all SRA students are from non-Abbott districts, the impact would be felt statewide.
  • Patterns of SRA use suggest a crisis in NJ mathematics education. By an almost 2 to 1 margin, more students use the SRA to satisfy the state’s math standards than the language arts standards. This raises significant issues about NJ math education and about opportunities to learn, including access to certified math teachers and high quality instruction.
  • The study found that the SRA’s “performance tasks” were “rigorous” and aligned with the HSPA. But it found that uneven implementation practices and inconsistent scoring across districts undermined the SRA’s credibility as an assessment tool. The report recommends improving the reliability of SRA scoring by using regional teams of NJ educators who are not evaluating their own district’s students.
  • The report found that there has been little research on the educational experiences of SRA students, or on their postsecondary outcomes compared to those of HSPA graduates or high school dropouts. “At this point New Jersey has no technical capacity for assessing any postsecondary outcomes,” it states. “We really don’t know if HSPA graduates fare better, worse or the same as their SRA peers.” The report urges “caution in making graduation policy changes with high-stakes consequences for students and school communities” until such information is available.

Years of debate about reforming or replacing the SRA has led to considerable uncertainty about its current status. In August 2005, the New Jersey State Board of Education proposed phasing out the SRA beginning with the freshman class that entered in September 2006 for language arts and the freshman class entering in September 2007 for math. However, the State Board deferred final action until the Department of Education developed “alternative opportunities for students to demonstrate the achievement of high school graduation requirements.” Those alternatives are still pending.

This fall both freshmen and sophomores and their teachers will return to school uncertain about the availability of the SRA as they approach graduation. Schools and districts face similar uncertainty about sustaining their supplemental instruction programs for potential SRA students (some of which involve early identification of students in 9th and 10th grades).

Another consideration is the timeline for implementing the state’s Secondary Education Initiative (SEI), a major reform effort currently underway to introduce college preparatory curricula, small learning environments and improved family/student supports to all Abbott middle and high schools. According to the report, “Eliminating the SRA before significant and demonstrable improvements are made in secondary programs and supports could have a major negative impact on graduation rates, dropout rates, the SEI reform effort, and the prospects for broader reform.”

The report’s recommendations urge New Jersey to develop “multiple pathways to graduation” including:

  • continued administration of HSPA
  • continuation of the existing SRA until a revised alternative is fully in place
  • implementation of a revised and strengthened SRA
  • opportunities for districts to develop additional local performance assessment systems that could be externally validated by the state
  • an appeals procedure for individuals who seek additional review
  • accelerated implementation of a statewide, student-level database, and
  • alignment of proposed changes in the state’s assessment system and graduation standards with substantive reform efforts to improve school programs

“Such a menu of assessment strategies would assure that all graduates meet New Jersey Core Curriculum Requirements without insisting on one-size-fits-all,” says the report. “It is important not to confuse ‘assessment reform’ with educational improvement. The proper purpose of educational assessment is to improve teaching and learning and to support better outcomes for the greatest number of students. Reform efforts should strengthen this fundamental purpose and resist tendencies to sort and label young people….”

The report and its recommendations have also been endorsed by a number of well-known national education experts, including Linda Darling-Hammond of Standard University who said, “The SRA is one reason why New Jersey has both very high achievement levels and very strong graduation rates… [it] reflects an approach that a growing number of states are seeking to emulate as an essential part of effective secondary reform.”

Education Law Center Press Contacts:
Stan Karp
Secondary Reform Project
voice: 973 624-1815 x42
Dr. Michelle Fine
CUNY Graduate Center
voice: 212 817-8710
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Press Contact:
Sharon Krengel
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications
973-624-1815, x240