Last month, the NJ Department of Education (NJDOE) proudly announced that the state’s high school graduation rate had improved for the fourth straight year to nearly 90%, one of the highest in the nation. At the same time, new graduation policies imposed by the NJDOE threaten to sharply reverse this progress, with the greatest impact on our most vulnerable students and high need districts.
Over the past year, the NJDOE dramatically altered the standard for high school graduation. The State substituted the new PARCC exams, with passing rates of 30-40%, for the previous graduation test, the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA), which typically had passing rates of 80-90%. The NJDOE also eliminated the Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA), used annually by approximately 10,000 students, including a large percentage of the state’s English Language Learners, to obtain a diploma.
State education officials imposed these new policies without following the required legal process. This has led to a lawsuit filed by parents and students challenging the NJDOE’s authority to impose the new policies on current high school students. It also has created potential grounds for legal claims by students denied a diploma this June on the basis of improperly imposed graduation requirements.
More than half of the seniors in the class of 2016—over 50,000 students—did not receive scores on last spring’s PARCC tests that satisfy the new graduation requirements. These students are now scrambling to pass other tests on the NJDOE’s list of “substitute assessments,” or are asking their schools to submit complicated graduation appeals.
District educators, especially guidance counselors, are devoting scarce resources and time to extra rounds of testing and paper-heavy appeals at a time when they should be helping seniors plan for college and post-secondary opportunities. For example, data from Paterson indicates that over 600 seniors had not yet met the new requirements, and the district is arranging extra test administrations and preparing hundreds of appeals. Other districts are facing similar challenges.
In January, the NJDOE finally presented proposed rules to implement the new graduation policies to the State Board of Education. But, at best, it will be months before the State Board can adopt these proposals. In the meantime, the NJDOE continues to illegally impose its new policies retroactively on seniors and other students.
In their lawsuit challenging the NJDOE’s new policies, the parents and students are asking an Administrative Law Judge to rule that the NJDOE violated the law when it imposed new graduation rules on high school students. They are also asking the Judge to order the NJDOE to implement the recommendations of the Governor’s 2012 College and Career Ready Task Force Report. This Report called for a multi-year transition period to phase in the PARCC tests during which “the state Department of Education will not establish a minimum passing score as a graduation requirement. Instead, graduation will be dependent on satisfactory completion of the required courses, as established by local boards of education, with accountability coming from a more robust transcript.” (Final Report, p. 47).
Since 1979, New Jersey has changed high school graduation tests four times. However, the NJDOE has never used a new test as a graduation standard after only a single administration. This year, New Jersey is the only state in the nation using PARCC as a high school exit exam. The PARCC consortium, which originally had 26 members, is down to six states.
The NJDOE has failed to heed concerns raised by many educators, parents and advocates over the last several years. Now the State’s ill-conceived policies and failure to follow the law have created an upheaval that is jeopardizing the graduation prospects of seniors across the state. It is also clear that intervention by the courts and the Legislature is necessary to fix it.
Policy and Outreach Director
973-624-1815, x 24
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications