Part 1 of 3: What will Common Core Exams Mean for NJ Graduation Policies?

More than 200,000 freshmen and sophomores will enter New Jersey’s public high schools this fall, and they all have one thing in common: none of them knows what they have to do to graduate.

While the state’s new teacher evaluation system is grabbing most of the attention, coming changes in state testing policies may have an even more dramatic impact. New and harder tests are on the way, and the bar for a high school diploma is about to become a moving target.

According to the NJ Department of Education, the state’s current high school graduation tests – the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) and the Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA) – are scheduled for elimination when the class of 2015 graduates. Students who will be sophomores this fall will be the first to face new math and language arts tests aligned with the newly adopted Common Core standards.

These new tests are being created by the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a multi-state consortium that received $186 million from the federal government to develop new Common Core assessments. NJ is a “governing member” of PARCC, which means it has a major role in deciding how the PARCC assessments will be used. Beginning in the spring of 2015, PARCC tests in language arts and math will replace the NJASK, currently given in grades 3-8, and new PARCC tests will be given annually to 11th graders and eventually to 9th and 10th graders as well.

By all accounts, the new tests will be more difficult than existing exams. States that have piloted early versions have seen proficiency rates drop sharply. New York scores released this summer showed only about 30% of students passed the new math and reading tests, a steep decline in passing rates that raised questions about the credibility of the tests and the implementation plans designed to prepare students for them.

Charlotte Danielson, a highly-regarded education authority whose teacher evaluation methods are used in more than half of NJ school districts, told Education Week: “I’m concerned that we may be headed for a train wreck there. The test items I’ve seen that have been released so far are extremely challenging. If I had to take a test that was entirely comprised of items like that, I’m not sure that I would pass it—and I’ve got a bunch of degrees. So I do worry that in some schools we’ll have 80 percent or some large number of students failing.”

What this means for NJ students is not yet clear. The state’s current graduation statute requires an 11th grade test in language arts and math that sets “a minimum requirement for high school graduation.” It also requires that any senior who has not passed the graduation test, “but who has met all the credit, curriculum and attendance requirements shall be eligible for a comprehensive assessment of said proficiencies utilizing techniques and instruments other than standardized tests.”

Over the past three decades, this statute has produced an alphabet soup of state high school exams:

1981          Minimum Basic Skills Test (MBS)

1983          High School Proficiency Test 9 (HSPT9)

1988          High School Proficiency Test 11 (HSPT11)

1991          Special Review Assessment (expanded access)

2002          High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA)

2008          Biology end of course exam

2009          Algebra I end of course exam

2010          Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA)

Each successive test promised and failed to ensure that NJ high school graduates would be well prepared for college, careers and citizenship, something standardized tests are ill-suited to do.

Current graduation tests don’t reliably measure what they pretend to measure (“intelligence,” “academic ability,” “college readiness”), and they don’t measure at all qualities all high school graduates should have (responsibility, resilience, critical thinking ability, empathy). The new tests are unlikely to be much better. They must be given over computer networks many schools don’t have and will still mainly consist of multiple-choice questions that assess a narrow range of skills and curricula.

Moreover, the entire country just finished a ten-year national experiment in the misuse of standardized testing called No Child Left Behind. NCLB’s testing mandates failed to raise academic performance or narrow gaps in opportunity and outcomes, while the over-reliance on testing contributed to a narrative of school failure that undermined support for public education. We need to avoid a similar policy-made crisis with the onset of the PARCC exams.

This won’t be easy, especially because the PARCC tests will arrive with a pre-determined “cut score,” or passing level, reflecting the consensus of its member states about what constitutes “college and career readiness.” The consortium has already defined five “performance levels,” with level four deemed “college and career ready.” Eventually that level will be linked to a specific test score on the new exams. Those who reach it will be labeled “college and career ready;” those who don’t will be labeled something else.

If NJ adopts PARCC’s “college and career ready” score as the threshold for high school graduation, thousands, or perhaps tens of thousands, of students will not get a diploma, even if they pass all their courses and meet all other requirements. If NJ adopts some other score on the PARCC tests as the graduation requirement, the Department of Education will need to explain why, and what the basis for that standard is.

NJ has tiptoed up to this chasm before and backed away. In the summer of 2010, the State Board of Education reviewed results of Biology and Algebra tests the Department of Education had been piloting for several years. But when it came time to set a passing “cut score” the State Board concluded that as many as 50,000 students could fail, a politically unpalatable result. Plans to make the Algebra and Biology exams a graduation requirement were scrapped, at least temporarily, along with plans to create a battery of tests for other subjects.

But now the Department’s commitment to PARCC and Common Core are bringing NJ back to the same precipice. The question once again is, who is at risk of going over the cliff?


Related Stories:


Part 2 of 3: Transition to New Tests Provides Opening for Better Assessment Policies

Part 3 of 3: NJ Needs Multiple Pathways to High School Graduation


Press Contact: 
Stan Karp
Director, Secondary Reform Project
973-624-1815, x28

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