John Mooney has an important piece today in NJ Spotlight on the decision by Ed. Comm. Cerf and the DOE to wean NJ public high schools away from dependence on the Alternative High School Assessment. Right now, the requirement for a NJ high school diploma is passing the HSPA in math and language arts (which is widely regarded as an 8th grade level test). But in 2016 students will no longer take the HSPA but instead earn diplomas by passing subject-specific tests in 9th, 10th, and 11th grade.
But here’s the rub: the implementation of the new testing system will eliminate an alternative test – the AHSA – currently used by 14.5% of students don’t pass the HSPA. (The appeals process will remain in place.)
It’s an old problem in New Jersey, one with both educational and political aspects. If we mandate grade-appropriate assessments for high school graduation, then lots of kids in our poorest districts won’t earn diplomas unless there’s an alternative, non-grade-appropriate route. Consequently, our highly-touted graduation rate will drop. (I’m not including kids who are English Language Learners or kids with disabilities.) If we maintain our alternate routes, like AHSA, then we devalue NJ high school diplomas but let kids from stark circumstances move along. In addition, we maintain our high graduation rates.
The Spotlight article has two charts: one of the districts with the lowest rates of students relying on the AHSA as an alternative route to graduation, and another of the districts with the highest rates. If you take out vocational schools and charters, the top 10 districts with the lowest rates of AHSA reliance all have District Factor Groups (a measure of a district’s socio-economic profile) of “I” and “J,” the wealthiest designations. The one exception is Middlesex Borough School District, which has a DFG of “FG.” The top 10 districts with the highest rates of reliance on the AHSA all have DFG’s of “A” and “B,” the most impoverished designations. The one exception is Willingboro High School in Burlington County, with a DFG of “DE.”
So, while only 1.3% of kids at wealthy Northern Highlands Regional in Bergen County used the AHSA to graduate, 57.6% at high-poverty Irvington High did.
If you’re feeling a touch of déjà vu, it’s well justified. Remember that about two years ago the AHSA replaced the Special Review Assessment (SRA), our former alternative assessment which was widely derided as an unaccountable exercise in folly. During fiery debates educators and politicians volleyed around the same ethical and educational conundrum: do we help kids by lowering expectations for high school proficiency and awarding diplomas through alternative means so that they can go to college or put graduation on their resumes? Or do we hurt kids by propagating the pretense that they’re proficient in high school studies?
Back in the SRA days (only two years ago), Education Law Center (see “SRA: Loophole or Lifeline”) and NJEA lined up to protect the SRA, which was described by a Record columnist this way:
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.
Then it is on to the next bite-size lesson. Practically everybody who takes the SRA passes. Last year, more than 11,000 students did, 12 percent of all New Jersey seniors.
No doubt advocates for SRA were thinking of the children’s best interests. (NJEA President Barbara Keshishian testified before the State Board of Education that “the SRA has served New Jersey’s students well. It is based upon educationally sound practices and offers students who cannot pass standardized tests a legitimate alternative to receive a diploma.”) But they were also invested in protecting NJ’s artificially inflated graduation rate, one of the best arguments for maintaining status quo practices.
Likewise, those interested in changing the status quo lined up to push for elimination of the SRA. No doubt they were thinking of the children’s best interests. (Then-Newark School Superintendent Clifford Janey said the SRA “has morphed into a culture of low expectations.) But they were also invested in debunking NJ’s artificially inflated graduation rate and, thus, making strong arguments for changes in the status quo.
So here we go again. No doubt there will be further debate about the ethical and political dimensions of restricting the AHSA. And maybe we’ll get a little further along this time.