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AHSA Scores Show Modest Gains

Newark NJ -- March 28, 2011

The NJ Department of Education has released results of the Alternative High School Assessment  (AHSA) given last December to over 10,000 seniors. The results indicate some modest improvement in passing rates and continued concerns about a test that was poorly implemented last year and led to the denial of diplomas to an estimated 3000 students last June.

Initial passing rates for the AHSA improved over last year's dramatically low rates when scoring and administration of the test were removed from local districts and turned over to Measurement, Inc., a state testing vendor. About 37% of those tested in December passed the Math exam and roughly the same percentage passed Language Arts. Last year, 34% passed the Math, but only 10% passed Language Arts.

This still leaves large numbers of seniors at risk of not graduating. But the results do indicate some progress in preparing students for the exam, especially the two-thirds of English Language Learners who rely on the alternative assessment to meet state graduation standards.

For the first time, the Department also released subgroup data for the AHSA. The data show relatively small gaps in passing rates among subgroups, suggesting that the problems of effectively supporting struggling students cut across all student groups. To earn a diploma, seniors must pass either the AHSA or the traditional High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) in addition to completing required course credits and meeting local graduation requirements.

3000 Students Denied Diplomas in 2010

The Department has still not accounted for the estimated 3000 students denied diplomas last June. Some of those students passed the summer administration of the AHSA, others dropped out, while some may have returned to school last fall. But the Department has not reliably tracked these students, even though their outcomes were a direct result of changes in state assessment policy.

"At a time when NJDOE is framing virtually every education statistic to advance Governor's Christie proposals for charters, vouchers, merit pay and budget cuts, the absence of attention to this test-driven increase in high school dropouts is striking," said Stan Karp, Director of Education Law Center's Secondary Reform Project.

Karp noted that the failure to adequately track dropouts has implications for the Department's plans to revise the way graduation rates are calculated next year.

AHSA Appeals Process

The thousands of seniors who still need to pass the AHSA to graduate will have another chance in April. There will also be another round of graduation appeals in early June. The appeals process, which was hastily implemented last spring in response to the graduation crisis, has been formalized. Schools are now required to submit an "Educational Proficiency Plan" for each appeal [additional EPP information available here]. EPPs are supposed to document a student's academic record and provide evidence that he/she has met state standards.

While the more demanding process may limit the number of appeals submitted, the pool of affected seniors is potentially even larger than last year's. Although it has received little notice, last summer was the first time that "rising seniors," including juniors who did not pass the HSPA, were not able to take the alternative test during the summer. This means a larger number of students entered senior year still needing to pass HSPA or AHSA to graduate.

For example, in recent years Jersey City ran summer programs that helped hundreds of juniors complete the alternative test. But because juniors were not allowed to take the AHSA last August, the number of students entering senior year still needing to pass grew from about 100 to over 600. Jersey City's AHSA passing rates for December were about 60%, well above the state average, but several hundred Jersey City seniors remain at risk. Whether these patterns will result in another statewide graduation crisis this June remains to be seen.

Additional Concerns

A number of other concerns have been raised about this year's AHSA, including:

  • Because of NJDOE budget cuts, none of the AHSA scoring was done by certified NJ educators. All scoring was done by Measurement, Inc. as a cost-saving measure.
  • The Department did not hold its usual AHSA information sessions last fall. Given last year's turmoil and the new appeals process, some districts expressed concern about a lack of guidance and timely information.
  • Because the first round of AHSA testing was held before the results of the October HSPA were available, many seniors had to complete both tests. These seniors missed significant class time in their regular courses.
  • Some test coordinators reported that because Measurement, Inc. used only English-language scorers, districts were required to translate responses into English for students who took the AHSA in their native language. This raised questions about test validity. Other districts had to scramble to translate test materials into languages NJDOE did not support, including Chinese and Arabic.
  • Math educators raised questions about the accuracy of some AHSA performance tasks and preparatory materials. Several items were revised and reissued by the Department.

The issues raised by AHSA and other state tests will take on growing importance as the state moves to raise the stakes attached to its standardized assessments. The use of test results not only to determine whether high school students get diplomas, but also to rate and dismiss teachers and even to close schools, will inevitably bring increased public scrutiny.

Education Law Center Press Contact:
Stan Karp
Director, Secondary Reform Project
email: skarp@edlawcenter.org
voice: 973 624-1815 x28