Asking The Right Question

Are the massive failure rates of students who took this year's Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA) a failure of teaching or testing?

That’s the heart of the battle between the Education Law Center and the NJ DOE. The Special Review Assessment (SRA), the test given to high schoolers who couldn’t pass the HSPA (the traditional assessment, which former Ed Commissioner Lucille Davy has called a “middle school level test”) has resulted over the years in passing rates of about 96%. The AHSA, given for the first time this year, resulted in passing rates of 10% in language arts and 33% in math, apparently because it was administered by an outside agency that prohibited local teachers from administering the test to their own students. Does this systemic academic failure of largely poor, urban high school seniors – which calls into question NJ’s much-vaunted high school graduation rate – stem from problems with the new test? Or does it point to a failure in instruction?

Depends upon whom you ask. The Education Law Center wrote a letter to the DOE on April 20th asking that recent test results be tossed: “ Since the content of the AHSA/SRA has not changed, it seems clear that these poor results are the result of new administration and scoring procedures implemented this year by the Department. The new scoring process, managed by Measurement, Inc., a state testing vendor, has apparently applied a very different standard than was previously used to evaluate the student performance tasks.” In other words, the problem is not input, but output. Instruction and curriculum is fine; it’s the test that’s at fault.

However, a June 2003 white paper from the DOE outlines the problems with the old SRA’s administration and scoring. The SRA was originally developed for use by children with disabilities and English Language Learners. However, oversight was weak enough so that some districts – particularly poor urban ones – began using the test for any student who couldn’t pass the HSPA. (Example: at Camden High School last year 53.3% of high school seniors were awarded a diploma based on SRA passage. Only 25.9% of the senior class passed the HSPA.) The DOE white paper notes that NJ is the only state in the country that offers an “assessment like the SRA, which is developed on a statewide level, yet is administered and scored on a local level.” It then recommends that the State eliminate the SRA because:
The NJ DOE (remember, this was the McGreevey Administration in 2003), therefore, comes to an opposite conclusion from ELC. The failure is not the test (except for special education and ELL students). The failure is that NJ is operating a back-door diploma mill that awards high school diplomas to children who are unable to meet State-mandated high school requirements, unlike all other states where children are expected to either meet the standard or not graduate. The old SRA propagates the myth that we are adequately educating our poor urban students and should be eliminated.

So this year the DOE followed the recommendations issued seven years ago and eliminated the SRA, replacing it with a carefully-proctored assessment. The vast majority of students failed.

The ELC rightly raises the point that some students who graduated via the SRA – 40%, according to their data – went on to “higher education” and that this served as a “lifeline” for these students. Is it fair to deprive all these students of high school diplomas, they ask? But ELC’s defense of poor urban students is undermined by the next sentence of the letter: the SRA “has contributed positively to maintaining one of the nation’s highest graduation rates.” Is this about the children or propaganda? Is this about acknowledging that children in chronically failing districts are denied equal opportunity or is about protecting school districts from sanctions?

If this is about providing adequate instruction, then the AHSA results are an unambiguous symptom of the problem, not the problem itself.

Labels: , , ,