During today’s State Board of Education public meeting, board members narrowly approved an adjusted “cut score”–the minimal score needed to pass—on the high school graduation-qualifying test called the NJGPA that students take in eleventh grade. The final vote was 6-5.
The New Jersey Department of Education, under the leadership of Acting Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan, has wrangled a lengthy dispute with board members who fear the Murphy Administration is too eager to lower student learning standards in order to create what Board Vice President Andrew Mulvihill today called “good optics.” Last year the DOE had urged the Board to set the cut score at 725, which it defined as “partially meets expectations” on the subjects covered by NJGPA, 10th grade reading and algebra 1. The Board voted, instead, to set the cut score at 750, which they were told meant “meets expectations.”
Last spring, with the cut score set at 750, 39.4% of NJ 11th graders passed the test in reading (or ELA) and 49.4% passed the test in math. This most recent administration of the test last month resulted in similarly low passing rates. Much of today’s meeting was taken up with debates and explanations as Allen-McMillan and DOE staffers lobbied the Board to lower the cut score to 725. (Students who fail the NJGPA can meet requirements through other tests or portfolio assessments. Everyone who shows up for school graduates.)
Here are some take-aways:
Allen-McMillan described a 750 cut score as an “overreach” and against the opinions of experts.
Yet there appeared to be much confusion about what the scores actually signify. One DOE staffer attempted to explain the concept of Performance Level Descriptors (PLD’s) that outline the knowledge and skill levels that map to student learning standards and indicate if students are ready to academically engage in further studies in the subject. Yet there was a fair amount of disagreement—among both the Board and DOE leaders—about whether the NJGPA is intended to gauge that readiness.
One DOE staff member from the Office of Assessments referred to 725 as “minimally competent,” which led board members to ask if a New Jersey high school diploma represented “minimal competence,” especially since last year the DOE changed the definition of a high school diploma from “college and career ready” to “high school graduation-ready.”
“The heart of the matter,” said Mulvihill, is we need to understand the difference in a student’s level of understanding. We need to understand the level of mastery. I’ve asked this question many times and never received an answer I could process.”
“I want to clarify,” responded Allen-McMillan, “that [a cut score of] 750 is an extra high standard, while a 725 is a high standard. We’re spending a lot of time on an assessment we don’t want to give but there are adverse effects our students will be experiencing. While it is noble to make a distinction between college and career readiness, with 3,000 colleges out there it is possible for students to not be ready for every college. New Jersey is the top-performing school system in the country. We are working to be perfect with an arbitrary measurement.”
Board member Arcelio Aponte argued that the students who would be “most impacted” by a higher cut score are “Black and Latino students in urban districts. What we’re holding these students to is a standard that may be unfair to our students.” He added, “is it the right thing for students to subject them to coursework in their senior year [if they fail the reading or math portion of the NJGPA]? To require them to do remedial work in the same school, with the same teacher? That’s not in their best interest.”
Member Joseph Ricca seemed to object to assessments in general: “To expect a 17-year-old to be finished learning or to have mastered anything is a flawed premise. We need to provide multiple pathways for them to continue to learn…Anyone can create a test that everyone will fail [and] I don’t know that this is the purpose of education. We need to create an environment where the student continues to learn…What is the best measure of essential skills? Is it behavior? Is it home environment? We need to consider what we’re doing.”
Another board member (I believe it was Mary Elizabeth Gazi) quoted U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, who urged states earlier this year to “raise the bar for academic excellence,” especially in wake of the pandemic learning loss. “You know who are the real experts,” she asked? “Our students. They’re going to go into college or the workplace and find out they’re not ready.”
“Everyone needs to know how important it is to get this right. But making it easier for students is not always going to give them the tools to help them. If 725 states the students are minimally prepared or have minimal understanding, I have a difficult time saying these students should just go forward.”
Board member Ned Johnson made a motion to approve a cut score of 725 on the NJGPA; it was seconded by Ricca. The final vote was 6-5.