At its March 19 meeting, the New Jersey State Board of Education passed a resolution to retain and reform the Special Review Assessment (SRA), the alternative high school assessment used in recent years by over 10,000 students to earn a high school diploma. The resolution, which passed by an 8-0 vote:

  • Rescinds the Board’s 2005 resolution calling for phasing out the SRA.
  • Keeps the existing SRA in place for the 2008-2009 school year
  • Directs the Commissioner and NJ Department of Education (NJDOE) to develop guidelines for a revised Alternative High School Assessment, modeled on the SRA, for implementation in 2009-2010.

The Board’s action followed a year-long campaign by advocates and stakeholders, including Education Law Center, to reverse plans to eliminate the alternative route to a diploma used by about 12% of all NJ graduates and about one third of all graduates in the urban Abbott districts. The issues were framed in a report, New Jersey’s Special Review Assessment: Loophole or Lifeline? produced last August by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Education Law Center, the Institute on Education Law and Policy at Rutgers, Newark and Newark’s Project GRAD. The report highlighted the impact that eliminating the SRA would have on NJ’s high school graduation and dropout rates, and especially on English language learners, immigrants and students in the urban “Abbott” districts.

The report made a series of recommendations for improving the SRA as a graduation standard and for tying reforms in assessment policy to broader, substantive efforts to improve NJ secondary schools. These issues were raised in a series of public forums, op-ed pieces, and State Board hearings that helped mobilize educators, parents, and advocates in support of plans to reform rather than eliminate the alternative assessment.

Many of the report’s findings and recommendations were referenced in the State Board’s discussions leading to passage of the March 19 resolution. The Board’s action was a victory for efforts to keep multiple measures and alternative assessments as part of NJ graduation and assessment policies and for the thousands of NJ students who annually use the SRA to earn a high school diploma.

While the State Board’s decision was welcomed by equity advocates, the debate over NJ’s high school graduation and assessment policies will continue. The guidelines for scoring and administration of the new Alternate High School Assessment still need to be developed and could affect the number of students who have access to it. Schools and districts that have more than 10% of their students using the alternative assessment to meet graduation standards will be required to develop plans to reduce those numbers.

The NJDOE is also proposing to adopt a new set of end-of-course exams as part of a broader “High School Redesign” that has yet to be made public. In addition, Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D-Union), who now chairs the Assembly Education Committee, has introduced a bill that would prevent the State Board from continuing to use the SRA as an alternative pathway to a diploma. The bill, A2250, has been referred to committee.

“Improving, rather than eliminating, the SRA is a step in the right direction,” said Stan Karp, director of ELC’s Secondary Reform Project. “But we also need to stop using exit tests, whether its HSPA or SRA or newly proposed end-of-course exams, as a substitute for the deeper reforms our middle and high schools need. To do that requires changing the ways schools actually work: smaller, safer learning environments, collaborative teams of teachers working with students over multiple years; time and preparation for better professional practice, better relations and communication with parents and families. It means creative curriculum reform, instead of one-size-fits-all standardization, tying school programs more closely to the real world students are about to enter and addressing directly the deep alienation young people face in large, anonymous high schools.

“Graduation standards and assessment systems should support such changes, not substitute for them. We should be expanding multiple pathways to high school graduation and building capacity at the state, district and school levels to sustain credible secondary reform efforts that go well beyond more standards and tests.”

Prepared: March 24, 2008

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