Alternative High School Assessment Shows Opportunities for Reform

Education, Policy — By on September 1, 2010 at 5:07 PM

New Jersey’s Department of Education today reported on its proposals for the troubling trend of high school students supposedly passing advanced math classes in their schools, but unable to demonstrate mastery of simple skills on statewide assessments.

Last school year, more than 4,500 high school students could not demonstrate reading, writing,  and/or math skills sufficient to meet graduation standards. With such a large number of non-proficient students, the state offered them the option of submitting to the Department of Education a portfolio, which includes students’ records and special projects.

Nearly 200 appeals for language arts were rejected, as were more than 300 math appeals. A breakdown by county of accepted and rejected appeals by county is available at this link.

In a memorandum, Deputy Commissioner Willa Spicer noted,

The findings that result from the extensive data we collected and the portfolio information we reviewed is disturbing. While there were many struggling students whose teachers and counselors provided good evidence of work accomplished and a record of appropriate courses and local interventions, there were other students, unable ultimately to evidence even simple math skills, who were unimaginably recorded by their schools as succeeding in Algebra II or even Calculus. Equally dispiriting, there were students whose records showed failure after failure in Algebra I, or English I, who were never provided appropriate courses or interventions over the years. Finally, some students with the requisite skills had to call themselves because their school would not prepare an appeal, and we had parents in tears because they could not get anyone to review matters at the school. Clearly, for the sake of these children and their families, changes need to be made.

New Jersey’s graduation statistics have been criticized as being artificial, especially in the state’s poorest communities. In fact, on the state’s Race to the Top application, one reviewer stated, “Increasing the graduation rate may initially prove more difficult as the state has been inflating it and nearly one-third of [local education agencies] did not sign on to support this goal.”

Assistant Commissioner Spicer’s memo outlines remedies, including required remedial work for 8th graders who fail to meet proficiency standards.

While disturbing, the reports on the AHSA offer a more honest assessment of New Jersey’s graduation rates and the lack of standards for course titles in many local school districts. Previously, students failing to pass the standard high school assessment could simply complete a series of tasks often administered and graded by teachers who knew the students. That exam, known as the Special Review Assessment, resulted in  nearly 100% of students passing the assessment and graduating. This raised obvious concerns about an exam that told educators and policymakers a student was proficient, even if they could not demonstrate it to a third party. The SRA’s increasing use in urban districts ultimately led to its heavy revision prior to the last school year.

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