Thousands of high school seniors will not graduate next month unless Education Commissioner Bret Schundler and the NJ Department of Education (NJDOE) move quickly to correct the Department’s mishandling of the new Alternate High School Assessment (AHSA).

Major problems with the new test surfaced last month when results of the January AHSA were returned to districts. About 9500 students took the math test, but only 3240 or 34% passed. Some 4500 students took the language arts test, but only 430 or 10% passed. Pass rates for all district factor groups were below 50% in math and 20% in language arts. In 120 districts not a single student passed the LAL arts assessment. In 40 districts no students passed the math assessment.

The AHSA is a “high stakes” graduation test designed to replace the often-criticized special review assessment (SRA). It is given to students who do not pass the traditional High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) and covers the same material in a different format. The alternative test has been used annually by about 12,000 students statewide to earn their high school diplomas.

Since the content of the test was not changed, the low passing rates were clearly the result of new administration and scoring procedures implemented this year by NJDOE, including turning the scoring over to a commercial vendor, Measurement Inc. The results were returned to schools just three months before graduation and have put future plans for thousands of students and their families, including many students who have already been accepted into college, in jeopardy.

NJDOE has flunked the AHSA in the multiple ways. But so far NJ high school seniors are paying the price. Here’s a summary of how NJDOE failed the test: (For full details click here.)

  • NJDOE failed to conduct any pilot testing of the new AHSA, as done with all previous graduation tests. In fact, department officials admitted the results were “a great surprise” because “we did not field test the scoring.”
  • The Department failed to have AHSA scoring done by certified NJ educators as promised.
  • NJDOE failed to address reports of inconsistencies and irregularities in Measurement Inc.’s scoring and training processes.
  • NJDOE failed to provide feedback on the January results so teachers and students could better prepare for the April test.
  • NJDOE failed to provide the extra time and other testing accommodations, including translation materials, that were the original reasons for having an alternative exam. These are especially important for English language learners and students who struggle with traditional, timed multiple-choice standardized tests.
  • NJDOE failed to consider the disparate impact on English language learners and students in high need districts.
  • The Department has responded to this debacle with “damage control” by “rescoring” some, but not all, of the January tests and asking districts to allow students to participate in graduation ceremonies without receiving a diploma.
  • The Department insists on using the results of this flawed process to deny diplomas to thousands of students who stayed in school, passed their courses, and met all other requirements for graduation.

These policies are unfair to students and their families and bad for New Jersey. If NJDOE wants to change the standards for high school graduation, it cannot apply those standards for the first time just three months before graduation.

In NJ, over 100,000 young people between the ages of 18 and 24 are unemployed and not in school. The NJ High School Graduation campaign reported that in 2007, 19,000 students failed to graduate at a lifetime cost in lost earnings of $4.9 billion. That same year, 11,474 students used the SRA to earn their high school diplomas. Which statistic poses a bigger threat to NJ’s future?

Denying diplomas to thousands of students on the basis of this year’s AHSA test scores is neither fair nor sensible. Individual graduation decisions this June should be made by the districts, schools and educators that know these students best, as was done under the previous SRA guidelines. NJDOE should treat this year’s AHSA results as the pilot it should have conducted in the first place and put a better process in place for next year, making sure that students and teachers have multiple pathways to success.

To contact NJDOE Officials about the AHSA:

Bret Schundler
Commissioner of Education
Office of the Commissioner
100 River View Plaza
P.O. Box 500
Trenton, NJ 08625
Telephone (609) 292-4450
Fax (609) 777-4099  

Willa Spicer
Deputy Commissioner
Office of NJ Deputy Commissioner of Education
609-984-5069 Tel
609-633-9553 Fax

For more info contact:
Stan Karp, Director, Secondary Reform Project, skarp@edlawcenter.org, 973.624.1815 ext.28.

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