PUTTING HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMAS TO THE TEST
Part 3 of 3: NJ Needs Multiple Pathways to High School Graduation
September 12, 2013
For years, NJ has had one of the highest high school graduation rates in the U.S. The state’s official rate of 86% for 2012 ranks near the top of the nation, and despite significant gaps across districts and student subgroups, NJ’s rates for Hispanics, 77%, and African Americans, 75%, are well above national averages. But this record of progress may be about to change. [More information about NJ graduation rates is available here.]
NJ’s high graduation rates have been sustained by assessment policies that give students various ways to meet State standards called “multiple pathways.” However, the adoption of new “Common Core” curriculum standards and the onset of the PARCC assessments could significantly narrow those alternatives. This fall, the NJ Department of Education (NJDOE) will release plans to revise state graduation policies as part of the transition to the PARCC exams. Unless the new policies preserve existing multiple pathways or open new ones, the impact on graduation and dropout rates could be severe.
Currently, to earn a NJ high school diploma a student must complete at least 120 credits of coursework, including minimum State requirements in core subjects such as English, math and science. NJ has raised graduation standards in recent years, requiring students to take more advanced math and lab science classes and more college prep courses. Districts can exceed these minimums but cannot require less.
Graduates must also demonstrate “satisfactory performance” on state assessments and show “proficiency in reading, writing and computational skills.” At present there are several ways for students to satisfy this requirement:
- pass both parts of the High School Proficiency Assessment or HSPA (math and language arts literacy);
- pass the Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA) for any area in which the student did not receive a passing HSPA score;
- receive an IEP waiver; special education students who have a required Individual Education Plan (IEP) generally take the HSPA, but the IEP may waive the results as a graduation requirement;
- submit a graduation “appeal” to the NJDOE.
Typically 10-15,000 students use AHSA each year to earn their diplomas, including as many as two-thirds of the state’s English language learners (ELL). About one to two thousand use the appeals process, and several thousand receive IEP waivers. In 2011, about 17,000 students used one of these alternative pathways to earn their high school diplomas.
The existence of multiple pathways is the difference between graduating and dropping out for thousands of NJ students. The alternatives also satisfy the requirements of NJ’s current graduation statute, which says that “any twelfth grade student” who does not pass the state graduation exam “but who has met all the credit, curriculum and attendance requirements shall be eligible for a comprehensive assessment of said proficiencies utilizing techniques and instruments other than standardized tests.”
The NJDOE has already announced plans to eliminate the largest of these alternative paths, the AHSA, after the class of 2015 graduates. This is potentially a major setback for at risk and ELL students. Research shows that students pushed out of school by high stakes exit testing often fall into the school-to-prison pipeline, increasing state incarceration rates by as much as 12%.
Despite Department rhetoric about “transparency” and “data driven reform,” NJDOE has made AHSA students virtually invisible in recent years, failing to report any AHSA results, notwithstanding regulations requiring the Department to do so. This past summer, in response to an Open Public Records Request from reporters, the Department even refused to reveal the total number of students who passed AHSA or failed to graduate because they didn’t.
Serious questions remain about how the Department’s new graduation policies will impact students who in the past would have used the AHSA to obtain a diploma. This includes questions about testing accommodations for the new PARCC tests (such as extra time and translation support for ELL students), guidelines for extra academic support and re-testing for students who don’t pass the tougher exams.
There are other concerns about using the PARCC assessments as a graduation standard. NJ’s graduation statute explicitly requires “development of a Statewide assessment test in reading, writing and computational skills to be administered to all secondary school pupils” in the 11th grade. The test is supposed to measure the “skills to be demonstrated as a minimum requirement for high school graduation.”
But the PARCC tests are not designed to measure “minimum requirements” for high school graduation. Instead, they are designed to assess something called “college and career readiness,” a hard-to-define set of academic and personal skills that PARCC’s own documents acknowledge includes many factors “beyond the scope of the PARCC assessments.”
It will take years of research and experience to determine how effective these new curriculum standards and tests are at predicting or promoting success in college. And it will take much more than standards and tests to provide the resources and supports needed to make college affordable, accessible and attainable for all. Using the PARCC tests as high school exit exams risks making “college and career readiness” a vehicle for restricting opportunity instead of expanding it.
The PARCC tests will significantly expand the wave of testing that accompanied No Child Left Behind. Before NCLB, NJ tested each student once in the elementary, middle, and high school grades. NCLB mandated testing every student every year in every grade from 3 through 8, a massive increase that has not led to better academic performance .
Under PARCC, the elementary and middle school tests will be longer with multiple parts. At the high school level, there will eventually be six PARCC exams, each with two parts—a “performance assessment” and an end-of-the-year test. There will be separate exams for English/Language Arts and Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II. The English/LA exams will be grade level tests in 9th, 10th and 11th grades. But the math exams are tied to courses that may be taken at different points in a student’s career. There is no 11th grade math exam as specified in the graduation statute. Among the many issues NJDOE policy must address is which or how many of these new exams will be required for graduation.
The goal of “college readiness for all,” like “leaving no child behind” has broad appeal. But NJ cannot test its way to either. The proper role for educational standards and assessments is to help identify the programs and supports students need to succeed, not to erect barriers to access and opportunity or to create new categories of failure. NJ’s high school graduation policies, including multiple pathways, should continue to make expanded opportunity the top priority.
PUTTING HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMAS TO THE TEST:
Director, Secondary Reform Project