NJ's Diploma Scam: Part I

Last Tuesday the Education Law Center (ELC) sent a letter to Commissioner Bret Schundler requesting that he “set aside the results of last January's Alternate High School Assessment (AHSA) after preliminary reports showed high failure rates that threaten June graduation prospects for thousands of seniors.”

ELC’s logic is that the test is flawed and all scores should be invalidated. In fact, these test scores point to the systemic failure of NJ’s public schools to adequately educate the population that ELC advocates for poor urban students.

Let’s back up. First of all, New Jersey is the only state in the country that allows students to bypass standard state assessments. Originally AHSA (called the Special Review Assessment until last year) was intended for special education students who, for reasons of disability, could not pass the standard HSPA. However in 1991, as a DOE white paper from May 2003 recounts, districts started using the alternative test for any student, disabled or not, who failed the HSPA three times. Over time, districts with large numbers of failing students have relied more frequently on this back-up test in order to graduate acceptable numbers of children. Example: last year 53% of Camden High School’s students graduated high school based on SRA results, as did 53.8% of Trenton Central High seniors and 59.1% at East Side High in Paterson. The DOE white paper nails the conditions that allow barely literate students to receive NJ high school diplomas:
Here's an NJ Left Behind blog post that describes the administration of the old SRA, including this description from a journalist who sat in on a student's test: " If a student fails a mini-quiz, the teacher does not accept defeat. Instead, she coaches him on the mini-content of the lesson and gives him a makeup quiz on it. The procedure can be repeated until finally (hooray!), he regurgitates the material satisfactorily."

Fast forward seven years to our new test, the AHSA, which was given for the first time in January and graded by a reputable outside agency called Measurement, Inc. The testing materials from Measurement include this adviso (in large bold letters) which gives a window into the sham that has allowed high school seniors to graduate in spite of an inability to pass an 8th grade level test: "ONCE THE STUDENT BEGINS TESTING, THE TEACHER OR ADMINISTRATOR WHO IS ADMINISTERING THE AHSA PAT MAY NOT ASSIST THE STUDENT IN ANY WAY EXCEPT TO MAKE SURE THAT THE STUDENT IS ON THE CORRECT PAGE IN THE ANSWER DOCUMENT."

The results of such basic oversight? According to ELC’s press release, of the 10,000 students who took the test in January, only 10% passed language arts and 34% passed math. In 120 school district not a single student passed the language arts portion, and in 40 district not a single student passed the math portion.

This rate of failure, indicative of the inability of our urban schools to effectively educate students, is, apparently, an embarrassment for both the ELC, which has argued heartily that excessive funding produces adequate learning, and for the NJ DOE, which is ultimately responsible for awarding high school diplomas to illiterate students. We could throw in the NJEA too, which highlights on its website that “New Jersey continues to have the highest graduation rate in the nation.” Sure we do, as long as hand out meaningless diplomas like glowsticks at a rock concert.

Next, we'll look at the NJ DOE's response.

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