New State PARCC Tests Will be Option in Graduation Requirements Starting Next Year

Diane D'Amico | Press of Atlantic City

Passing the new PARCC state tests in language arts and math will be one of three options high school students can use to meet the state requirement for graduation during the three-year transition period starting with the Class of 2016.

The options were outlined in a memo sent Tuesday by acting Commissioner David C. Hespe to all school superintendents.

The PARCC option came as a surprise to educators. Last year then N.J. Education Commissioner Chris Cerf had said passing the new PARCC tests in high school would not be a requirement for graduation for at least three years. But he did not address what the replacement criteria might be.

Under the new proposal, students who will graduate in 2016, 2017 and 2018 will have three possible options for graduation. First, they can pass the new PARCC tests in their designated math and English courses.

If they do not pass the PARCC tests, or have already completed the courses that require it, they can submit scores from a substitute test, such as the SAT, ACT, Accuplacer, or ASVAB-AFQT, or they can submit a portfolio appeal of their work. The portfolio appeal is already offered for students who do not pass the current state test.

Hespe said in a phone interview Wednesday that they are trying to both meet the state requirement for a high school exit exam and give students flexibility in how to achieve it.

“We need to have state assessments,” Hespe said. “The law requires them. And we want to remind students that the PARCC does mean something.”

School officials and education advocates are still reviewing the proposals, but some already have questions and criticism.

Stan Karp of the Education Law Center said students and districts will be experiencing the PARCC for the first time in 2015, and no one even knows yet what the passing scores will be. He said the PARCC tests will, in effect, be a graduation requirement since all students will be required to take them and use them to graduate if they pass.

“The memo contradicts everything the department has been saying about suspending the high school exit test requirement during the transition to PARCC,” Karp said.

NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer called the memo a poorly timed decision that has caused great confusion among students and educators.

“While this policy may meet the spirit of the state assessment law,” he said, “it’s a stretch to say that it established a legitimate standard for graduation.”

He said there are still questions about the PARCC tests and how well they will measure student learning. He noted that three months after agreeing to name a special commission to review the new tests, Gov. Chris Christie has yet to appoint anyone to the commission.

Eric Milou, a math professor at Rowan University who has been involved with state standards, also questioned the passing scores on the substitute tests, calling the 400 passing score on the SAT tests “ridiculously low.” He said the options make it unlikely many students will not pass, but the process does not include a multi-year analysis of the PARCC test results before they count for graduation.

“We are telling students they have to take the test to graduate, but we have no idea what the score will be to pass it,” he said.

Hespe said the passing score will be determined after the PARCC test results are received, and must be approved by the state Board of Education. The passing scores for the substitute tests were the same ones used in 2010 when the state transitioned into a new alternate assessment process for students who had failed the High School Proficiency Assessment.

Julia Sass Rubin, a Rutgers professor and spokesperson for Save Our Schools, said the proposal shows the weaknesses and unreliability of the state law requiring the tests for graduation.

“Maybe it’s time to rethink the law,” she said. ‘The whole idea of standardized testing as a graduation requirement is a bad idea.”

Only about half of all states require a high school exit exam. Rubin said portfolios are a better measure, but right now students can only use the portfolio option if they fail the tests.

Local educators were surprised at the memo since they had thought PARCC test results would not count for three years.

Lower Cape May Regional Superintendent Christopher Kobik said they do like the idea of multiple avenues for students to demonstrate they have met the graduation requirements.

“We will have to accelerate efforts to make sure students are prepared under these new timelines,” he said.

Vineland Superintendent Mary Gruccio said she is concerned that students who do not plan to attend college would not take one of other standardized tests, for which there is a fee, leaving them only with the portfolio option if they do not pass the PARCC tests. 

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