New Jersey’s Urban School Superintendents have asked the Department of Education (NJDOE) to revise new guidelines for the Special Review Assessment (SRA) for the 2009-10 school year. The guidelines could have a major impact on NJ’s graduation and dropout rates.

The SRA is an alternative assessment for students who have met local graduation requirements but have not passed all three parts of the High School Proficiency Assessment, the state’s traditional exit test. Last year, about 11,500 students, 12% of all NJ graduates and 1 of every 3 urban graduates used the SRA to meet state graduation standards.

In March 2008 the State Board voted to retain but revise the SRA as an alternative pathway to graduation. NJDOE appointed an Advisory Committee to recommend ways to improve the transparency and reliability of the process. In August, it released new guidelines for the renamed “Alternative High School Assessment” (ASHA) still commonly referred to as the SRA.

The Advisory Committee had recommended that NJDOE use an audit system to identify problems with local scoring, especially in high-use schools and districts, and take corrective steps where problems were found. However, the Department rejected that recommendation and instead is moving all scoring to regional centers managed by Measurement, Inc. the state’s testing vendor at a cost of approximately $1.1 million over two years. In addition, the new guidelines limit SRA administration to two three-week testing windows (one in January and one in April) and provide fewer opportunities for students to complete the performance tasks than under the previous school-based system. (See NJDOE presentation on new guidelines).

To graduate, SRA students must pass all required courses and successfully complete the performance tasks for any sections of the HSPA they have not passed. The content of the SRA is comparable to the HSPA, but its local scoring and heavy use in some schools gave rise to criticism that it had become a lower standard. (See NJ’s SRA Loophole or Lifeline) .

In a letter to Dr. Tim Peters, Director of Assessment for NJDOE, the Urban School Supts. asked the Department to consider revisions of the new guidelines that “would improve the administration of the SRA and maintain the integrity of the process.” Specifically the USS asked the Department to make the following changes:

  1. Add a summer SRA administration for students who have otherwise met graduation requirements by June 2010;
  2. Open the second administration window in April 2010 to all eligible students. (The August guidelines said only students who took the SRA in January and did not pass could take it again in April. This would exclude students who were sick, absent, late transfers, and some students in “credit recovery” programs or otherwise not able to take the SRA in January;
  3. Allow districts some flexibility in dates for the proposed administrative windows, especially since the new guidelines and timelines were issued in late August, well after school and district calendars were set;
  4. Return the January results earlier than the proposed March 31 deadline in order to allow for supplemental instruction based on those results before the second administration window;
  5. Make provisions for native speaking student populations including, but not limited to Spanish, and work with districts to make native language assessments and appropriate scoring arrangements available;
  6. Clarify the status of seniors who complete the 2009-10 school year with sufficient credits to graduate but who have not passed HSPA or SRA. Are such students entitled to return as “5th year” seniors? What courses/credit requirements will be required of such students?  Will such students have to wait till January 2011 to take the SRA again? Will they be able to graduate mid-year if they pass? Will district funding/enrollment calculations include support for such students?; and
  7. Consider revising the guidelines to apply only to “high use” schools/districts (above 10% SRA use) during the current school year. Allow other schools/districts to operate under the previous guidelines with the addition of random external audits to verify the reliability of scoring and consistency of administration. Where problems are identified, districts/schools could be required to follow the new protocols.

The Department has indicated a willingness to let all eligible students take the SRA in April and allow districts to schedule a third administration for 2010 graduating seniors next summer. It has not responded officially to the other proposed revisions.

Improved data gathering will be needed to evaluate the impact of the new guidelines on graduation and dropout rates. Peters has acknowledged that NJDOE has “no serious data” on the SRA beyond the total numbers of student tested. For example, between 2005 and 2009 the number of SRA graduates declined by nearly 5000, but NJDOE does not know if the decline reflects increased numbers passing HSPA, more dropouts, or something else. When a reporter asked Education Commissioner Lucille Davy at a June press conference how the new SRA guidelines would affect NJ’s nationally-leading graduation rate, she said there’s “no way to know.”

The Department is gathering information on course-taking patterns from schools and districts where more than 10% of graduates use SRA. But it has not disaggregated SRA data by demographic subgroups (as it has with HSPA results) or tracked what happens to students who do not successfully complete the process. It has also not conducted any comparative study of post-school outcomes for HSPA students, SRA students, and dropouts.

Contact: skarp@edlawcenter.org


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Sharon Krengel
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