NJ to restart graduation test, but what’s a passing mark?


NJ Spotlight News

A high school graduate waves after receiving her diploma.


After a two-year hiatus for the COVID pandemic, New Jersey will be restarting its controversial high school graduation test this spring, going back to a language arts and math test that’s given in 11th grade.

But nothing is ever easy about starting a new test, as evidenced by the State Board of Education’s lively — if not unfamiliar — discussion Wednesday on exactly how rigorous the test should be.

Before the board was a proposal from the administration of Gov. Phil Murphy for setting a passing or “cut score” for the new test — called the New Jersey Graduation Proficiency Assessment (NJGPA) — that will be given to high school juniors this spring, starting in March, and be one of the measures for graduation a year later.

The new 11th-grade NJGPA — now taken entirely online — will specifically measure proficiency at 10th-grade language arts and algebra I and geometry in math. The cut score for each was proposed at 725 on a scale from 650-850.

Students who don’t pass still have several paths to a diploma, including alternative tests and ultimately a more subjective portfolio assessment. But since its inception three decades ago, the high school test has always been the symbolic watermark of what New Jersey says a graduate should minimally know and be able to do.

Too high, or too low

Yet as is often the case with decisions in the state’s long-running history of such tests, the discussion quickly moved to whether the level was too high or too low in measuring the minimum proficiency for a diploma.

Leading the argument that the proposed cut score could be too low was the board’s vice president, Andrew Mulvihill, who has been the most outspoken advocate for a rigorous assessment system.

“There is a concern that we are graduating students by setting a cut score that may be too low who are not ready for their career and not able to do simple things necessary for them to be successful or go off to college without having to take remedial courses,” he said.

“It matters, it really matters,” he continued later. “We are telling children that if you pass this test, you are ready to go. But if we set the scores in such a way that if you pass this test and they’re not ready, then we’ve failed. We can’t do that.”

That touched off several retorts from those who said the development of cut scores is a complex process that looks at a host of factors — from the purely quantitative to issues of fairness.

In New Jersey’s case, the work was done by the state’s testing vendor, New Meridian, and in consultation with a national panel of university professors and other experts.

“It is a very arduous task to determine what the cut line is,” said Ronald Butcher, the board’s longest-sitting member and himself a retired college administrator at Rowan University. “It takes a lot of research, a lot of data, and a lot of hard work. It is difficult to draw the line in the sand if you will.

“I think it is prudent of us to raise concerns if this is too high or too low, but at some point we need to rely on the professionals to make that final judgment call,” he said.

Different purpose

Joseph Ricca — the one working educator on the board as a superintendent in New York State — made the distinction that the high school test has a different purpose than the annual testing the state now conducts in grades 3 through 9.

“We are talking about basic standards that we believe will be good tools in the learner’s toolbox that allow them to move into a career or college,” he said.

And Ricca dismissed the common concern that too many high school graduates need remedial courses once in college.

“I guarantee you that if colleges were not able to charge for remedial courses, nobody would ever be assigned to one again,” he said. “Let’s finally put that out to pasture. Colleges and universities make money when kids have to take extra classes.”

“We need to be looking for ways in the year 2021 to be reducing barriers for kids to be able to graduate from high school,” he said.

Mulvihill responded: “I believe there should be a point that we shoot to. We have to have high expectations. If we have low expectations, we’ll get low results.”

The discussion went back and forth for the better part of an hour — not unusual for the board but complicated a little by the virtual setting that led to members speaking over each other during the Zoom call.

But in the end, a majority appeared ready to approve the proposed new cut score when the board meets next in the new year, although it looks far from unanimous. And board members on both sides pressed for the state Education Department to come back to them in analyzing the results from those maiden tests to see if changes are necessary for the future.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-12-02 03:19:43 -0800