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Alternative High School Exam Returns

Six months after a poorly implemented state test disrupted the graduation plans of thousands of seniors, New Jersey's Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA) is back. So are concerns about avoiding a repeat of last year's chaos.

In December the AHSA will be given to thousands of NJ high school students who did not pass the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) last March. Students must pass either of the state tests to earn a diploma. In recent years, the alternate exam has provided a path to a diploma for about 11,000 students, including one of every three urban graduates.

Last June, the New Jersey Department of Education denied diplomas to an estimated 3000 seniors who did not pass the revised AHSA. Months later, the Department says it still can't tell how many of those students passed a re-test during the summer, or what happened to those seniors who did not graduate in June. Despite a $1.1 million contract with test vendor Measurement, Inc. to manage AHSA scoring and data, the Department has not released a final summary or subgroup results for the test.

"One reason the Department gave for turning management of the test over to Measurement, Inc. was that it would provide more reliable information about student performance. That hasn't happened," said Stan Karp, who directs the Education Law Center's Secondary Reform Project. "Without complete data it's impossible to monitor the real impact of state assessment policies."

Karp added that English Language Learners were disproportionately affected by last year's AHSA issues. Two thirds of ELLs typically do not pass the HSPA, which is given in English only. These students rely more heavily on the alternative test, which is sometimes available in native languages with extended time.

This year's pool of AHSA students may be even larger than last year when nearly 10,000 seniors failed the first administration of the revised exam. Under new guidelines, only seniors who failed to graduate in June were eligible for the summer 2010 AHSA testing program. Juniors who did not pass the HSPA on their first try last March were ineligible. As a result, more students entered their senior year this September still needing to pass either test.

For example, Jersey City had about 100 seniors in this situation last fall; this year there are over 600. Newark has almost 1400 up from 925, and Paterson about 750 up from under 600.

Another new element is the Education Proficiency Plan (EPP). Districts are required to develop an EPP for any student who did not pass the HSPA or who enters 9th grade with less than proficient scores on the state's 8th grade test. The plans require districts to document "interventions" for struggling students and provide alternative evidence that they have met state standards. The EPPs will be the basis for graduation appeals for seniors who complete all other requirements, but do not pass the state tests.

Last year, an appeals process was hastily developed as an option for the large number of students at risk of not graduating. The EPPs are an attempt to formalize the appeals process. However, the "automatic" appeals that accepted certain scores on the SAT, Accuplacer, or the armed services test as substitutes for the state exams have been eliminated.

Some districts have complained that the EPP process will be time-consuming and costly in a particularly tight budget year. This could affect student access to the appeals process.

There are several other potential problems with the 2010-11 AHSA administration:

  • In a cost-cutting measure, the Department has eliminated scoring by NJ educators; all scoring will be done by Measurement Inc, which uses non-certified temporary employees trained in holistic scoring guidelines. MI's scoring practices were an issue during last year's controversy.
  • The Department did not conduct any training or information sessions about AHSA this fall. One "webinar" was held on the EPP. Several key staff who had been responsible for addressing AHSA issues, including Deputy Commissioner Willa Spicer, are leaving the Department.
  • Students taking the AHSA this December must do so before scores on the October HSPA are returned. This means double testing for many. The amount of class time students must miss to take the state assessments is a growing concern.
  • The scheduled dates for the last AHSA administration next June fall in the middle of final exams for many districts and end on July 13 when many summer school programs are just getting started. District officials hope the Department will extend that July 13 date and open up the last AHSA window to juniors.

Finally, the Department's problems with AHSA have broader implications for the state's testing programs. This year's freshmen must pass end of course exams in Algebra and Biology in order to graduate. Pilot tests given in previous years project that as many as 50,000 students may not pass each exam.

For more info: contact skarp@edlawcenter.org

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