Special Review Assessment Denial

Reverend Reginald T. Jackson, Executive Director of The Black Ministers’ Council of New Jersey, testified before the State Board of Education last week and expressed ire and frustration with the D.O.E.’s newly rigorous high school graduation requirements and the continuing use of the Special Review Assessment (SRA) that lets underachieving students graduate anyway. According to the Reverend, 20% of our high school graduates receive diplomas based on results from the “dumbed-down” SRA – which they get to take after failing the standard 11th grade HSPA three times -- and 90% of incoming freshman at Essex County College need remedial help. He quotes Lucille Davy:

The HSPA, according to the Commissioner of Education, is a middle school level test. This has been corroborated from former Commissioners of Education who I have spoken to. So eleventh and twelfth grade students get three chances to pass a middle school grade test and, if they fail, they get to pass the SRA; for after all who fails the SRA? So then the SRA represents not a second chance but a fourth chance to pass a middle school level assessment where, in order to pass or to be considered proficient on the HSPA, in language you only need to score 47% and in math 50%.

By the way, no other state in the U.S. offers this sort of shortcut to graduation.

Now, there is some dispute over the usefulness of the SRA, though anyone speaking honestly will acknowledge that it is badly overused. In 2003 the D.O.E. published a white paper that recommended that we eliminate the SRA, calling it a “prudent and acceptable choice,” given that the accountability and auditing of the testing process is, well, nil. On the other hand, in 2007 CUNY published a paper called “New Jersey’s Special Review Assessment: Loophole or Lifeline?” One of the co-authors is Stan Karp of the Education Law Center, the primary advocates for students in Abbott districts. Their conclusion? Keep the SRA and make it better; anything else is “diploma denial.”

It's a conundrum. How do we square tougher high school graduation requirements with the fact that 20% of our children can't pass easier ones? Sure, it looks pretty on paper, gives the warm and fuzzies to politicians, and tags along nicely with No Child Left Behind's placid demand that all children are above-average.

If a high school diploma is supposed to denote a certain mastery of material, then how do we justify handing it out to kids who can't read at a middle-school level? But it's not their fault: it's the crappy schools, crappy teachers, crappy parents, crappy poverty, whatever. We can't abandon them.

The SRA is not the problem. It's the symptom of the problem.

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