After a two-year pandemic suspension, New Jersey has resumed “exit testing” for high school diplomas despite the fact that students have been deprived of numerous opportunities to meet the requirement that were guaranteed following a 2018 court ruling. The State’s decision puts the June graduation prospects of thousands of current seniors at risk.
In an April 5 letter to Governor Phil Murphy and Acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) and Education Law Center (ELC) urged the State to take action by extending suspension of the requirement through the current school year or immediately providing more opportunities for seniors to meet it.
The ACLU-NJ and ELC represented civil rights and parent advocacy groups in a successful 2018 challenge to the State’s graduation rules. A resulting consent agreement covered the graduating classes of 2019 through 2022, and guaranteed current seniors multiple chances to meet the graduation assessment requirement. But many of those opportunities were lost due to pandemic school closures and the suspension of state testing for the past two years.
The April 5 letter emphasized that “class of 2022 students have not received fair, legally required opportunities to meet the graduation assessment requirement, thus ignoring the clear terms of the consent agreement…This unfairly deprives seniors in the class of 2022 of alternative pathways to graduation that they had been promised and to which they are entitled.”
Most seniors have not had a state test since they were freshmen. Typically, there are about 100,000 seniors statewide. New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) assessment reports indicate that fewer than half that number satisfied the graduation testing requirement with the one state test they took as freshmen. There has also been pandemic-related reduced access to alternative tests to meet the requirement, such as the SAT.
For many students, the only option is to submit a “portfolio appeal,” a time-consuming process for student, schools and districts. Portfolio appeals are collections of graded “performance tasks” that indicate mastery of state standards. They must be compiled with the help of school staff and submitted along with official school records and transcripts to the NJDOE in Trenton. This year, for the first time, the NJDOE is only accepting portfolio submissions electronically.
The letter cites data from a recent survey conducted with the assistance of Great Schools New Jersey, an association of high needs district superintendents, that indicates the potential extent of the problem: “Reponses from 28 high needs districts showed a 50% increase in the number of portfolio appeals over 2019 (the last year portfolio appeals were accepted), with the process still ongoing. Eleven districts reported increases of more than 100%. These districts reported submitting portfolios for as many as one third of all members of the senior class. By comparison, the percentage of students submitting portfolio appeals in 2019 statewide was 5.6% for ELA and 7.2% for math.”
The letter further notes that the most high-need students, including English learners (ELs) and students with disabilities, rely disproportionately on the portfolio process to earn their diplomas: “For example, in the above-mentioned survey, 27% of portfolios have been submitted on behalf of EL students, even though EL students comprise about 7% of all New Jersey public school students. Districts serving concentrated populations of students from low-income families also generally rely more heavily on the portfolio process.”
The April letter follows up on a request from ELC to the Murphy Administration last July urging extension of “the suspension of the high school graduation testing requirement…for an additional year in order to comply with relevant legal obligations and ensure the senior class of 2022 has appropriate opportunities to graduate.” ELC has asked the NJDOE to make public the data about how many seniors still need to satisfy the requirement and, if it is not suspended, to provide additional opportunities for seniors to meet it. The Administration and the Department have not responded.
The letter was signed by ACLU-NJ Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero and ELC Executive Director David Sciarra and urges quick action: “Without taking reasonable measures within the next few weeks, the State will irreparably injure students who have suffered far too much hardship already.”