Newark – On September 1, several New Jersey students and their families filed a lawsuit (PDF) challenging the NJ Department of Education’s (NJDOE) attempt to impose new exams and other fee-based tests as requirements for high school graduation without adopting new regulations as required by law.
The lawsuit, T.B., et al. v. NJ Department of Education, contends that NJDOE failed to follow existing regulations or propose new ones under the NJ Administrative Procedure Act (APA) when Commissioner of Education David Hespe announced that new graduation requirements would apply to this September’s incoming senior class.
The students and families filing the lawsuit are represented by the Education Law Center (ELC) and the American Civil Liberties Union of NJ (ACLU-NJ).
Last fall, Commissioner Hespe sent a memo (PDF) to districts and charter schools stating that high school students would no longer have to pass the State’s existing graduation tests, the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) or the Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA), even though NJDOE regulations require use of those tests. The Commissioner’s memo notified districts that students must instead pass at least two of the new PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) exams, given for the first time last spring. Hespe said that “schools and districts can expect to be notified of the [PARCC] 'cut scores' for use in New Jersey graduation determinations in the Fall of 2015.” Students who don’t pass PARCC must attain certain scores on the SAT, ACT or other tests, or successfully complete an undefined “portfolio appeals” process.
The lawsuit seeks to halt using PARCC, SAT and other tests as graduation requirements until NJDOE formally proposes and adopts new regulations through the APA process. The APA requires NJDOE to publish new rules in detail and give the public the opportunity to comment.
“This is a matter of basic fairness to students and families,” said Linda Reid, the grandmother of a Paterson 10th grader. “Changes in high school graduation requirements require the adoption of new regulations by the State Board of Education, an opportunity for public comment about those regulations, and due notice for the parents and students who will be affected. None of that happened.”
Concerns have been raised about the potential impact of the proposed policies, especially on at-risk students, English language learners (ELL), students with disabilities, and students with other special needs. For example, the elimination of the AHSA, the alternative assessment, will close a pathway to graduation used by as many as 10,000 students annually, including more than half of all ELL graduates. The use of fee-based commercial tests, including the SAT and ACT, as high school graduation exams also raises questions about equal access and the alignment of these tests with state standards. In addition, expanded use of the “appeals” process could place a significant new burden on high school guidance departments, especially in high poverty districts.
“There has been so much confusion and controversy about New Jersey tests and standards over the past year that students and parents don’t know what’s going on,” said Newark high school senior Tanasia Brown, one of the petitioners. “A lot of us have received no information or confusing information about the new graduation policies and about whether the PARCC tests ‘count.’”
“Students and families are supposed to receive information about high school graduation requirements when they enter 9th grade,” she added. “Changing requirements for students going into their junior or senior year is not fair or reasonable.”