This New Bill Proposal To Eliminate Diploma-Testing Has Two Fatal Flaws. Here’s What We Should Do Instead.

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Tomorrow morning the New Jersey Assembly Education Committee will consider a bill, Assembly Bill 4639, sponsored by Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, that would eliminate the requirement that prospective high school graduates take a diploma-qualifying test in reading and math, currently called the NJGPA. While we can argue whether we even should require a standardized assessment as a graduation requirement, this particular bill proposal contains two fatal flaws that will hurt students as well as the credibility of the state’s school system.

The NJGPA is easy to hate. In an effort to keep graduation levels high, the Murphy Administration’s Department of Education keeps lowering the bar for students required to take the assessments in 11th grade; the current test tops out at a 10th grade-reading level and Algebra 1. (If you took Algebra 1 in 8th grade, tough luck: better start reviewing.) How low can we go? In New Jersey, as of last spring, high school diplomas don’t signify “college and career readiness” like they used to but “high school graduation readiness.” So how are kids doing? Poorly: in 2022 39.4% of students passed the reading portion and 49.5% passed the math portion. Sure, that’s after massive school disruptions but still hard to swallow. And, really, it doesn’t matter: students can retake the test multiple times or use an alternative to the test. Everyone who tries gets a diploma.

So should we just throw the whole thing in the trash heap? Some have argued we should, often out of a misguided sense of equity. 

And that’s the first fatal law of Caputo’s proposal: if the Legislature passes the bill and Gov. Murphy signs it, each of our 600 districts would take charge of determining whether students are ready to graduate from high school, tossing away any opportunity to gauge the overall effectiveness of our statewide school system. 

From the bill proposal:

“Pursuant to guidelines established by the Commissioner of  Education, each board of education shall establish standards for graduation from its secondary schools. The standards shall include, but need not be limited to: Demonstration of proficiencies in those subject areas and  skills identified by the board as necessary for graduation….[Such a program shall include, but not be limited to]:  Levels of proficiency in reading, writing and computational skills to be demonstrated as a  minimum requirement for high school graduation to be determined  by local boards of education.”

Whoa, Nellie! Talk about the Wild West! Each local board of education, whose members circulate like a game of musical chairs, will reach consensus on what a high school diploma signifies from its own district. Let’s say a board says, “no one gets a high school diploma without passing BC Calculus.” Go for it! Another says, “eh, reading at a 6th grade level works for me.” Great! Another says, “we don’t need no damn standards, we’re going to go by grades instead” and that’s fine too. 

If the Assembly passes this bill they’re damning 1.3 million public school students to a party game, with their learning dependent on the ambitions of local politicians 

Does that work for you?

The second fatal flaw of Caputo’s bill is really an extension of the first. In the statement at the end he says, ”It is the belief of the sponsor that graduation exit testing does not accurately represent student learning or college and career readiness” and outside factors  like “strong racial and socioeconomic biases and inconsistency with material taught in class” diminish test quality. Instead, he says, student grade averages —GPA’s–are far more predictive. 

My colleague Sharif el-Mekki, CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development, knows better. To “turn and run” from academic test scores for Black and Brown children because “it’s a cleaner fit with your intellectual project,” he writes, is “dishonest and lazy.” Instead we must do “the hard work of improving our public education system.” 

El-Mekki continues

By contending that any type of standardized academic measurement–imperfect as any human-created system will be–shows nothing of use for Black and Brown children does just that. It conceives of their individual abilities as insurmountably swallowed up, drowned out or obfuscated by the ‘whiteness’ of the tool being used to measure those abilities.

I want to be clear: Far too many of our children can’t read or do math. Observing this fact and finding it unacceptable is not racist. Indeed, to excuse it away with some virtue-signaling waving of hands is racist.

Caputo’s bill is precisely that: virtue-signaling.

Far better is Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz’s bill, S50, which eliminates the requirement that 11th graders take a diploma-qualifying test and orders the Education Commissioner to designate a new assessment, approved by the State Board, through “a  collaborative process with interested stakeholders in the education community to solicit feedback.”

In other words, we’re getting rid of the rigid requirement of 11th grade testing in reading, writing, and math but maintaining what the Monitor describes as “some form of benchmark testing  [as] part of the education system so school officials can analyze data on teachers and students.”

Sounds like the right balance to me.

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