Monday, April 20, 2009

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.

1 comment:

MaryLou said...

Absolutely true. SRA is a symptom of the problem. Removing the "crutch" won't cure the broken leg. The students who need to go through the SRA are mostly students who speak English as a second language, have poor attendance, or did not have rigorous education before high school. What we need to do is hold students responsible for their choices and offer support and guidance. If every child is not reading by the fourth grade, the intervention needs to begin then, not when the child fails the HSPA for the third time. Let's be honest. By the time these children are taking high school exit exams like HSPA, it is TOO LATE.

Furthermore, the schools and teachers suffer the consequences of high HSPA failure rates, not the students. I have seen students take the HSPA and write two words, then color a bracelet for the rest of the time. The students who fail the HSPA junior year should have mandatory summer school or tutoring before taking it again, or some other type of consequence to failing the test. That would greatly reduce the SRA rates.
I am a teacher and I see intelligent students who settle for 70's and 75's because "passing" is their only goal because they "know" they won't afford college anyway.

I believe that the solution to the SRA problem lies in increased academic rigor in the elementary and middle schools, increased student and parent responsibility, increased reward and motivation for successful students and constant support for students who need it.