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NJ Lowers Passing Test Score for High School Graduation

Standardized test form with answers bubbled in and a pencil resting on the paper with a shallow depth of field
CLS Digital Arts/Shutterstock.com
Standardized test form with answers bubbled in and a pencil resting on the paper with a shallow depth of field

By Vince Conti

TRENTON – New Jersey State Board of Education lowered the passing score for the New Jersey Graduation Proficiency Assessment May 3. 
The passing score was lowered from 750 to 725. The new score threshold will apply to prospective high school graduates in 2024 and 2025. 
The purpose of the change is to significantly increase the number of students who would meet the test levels necessary for high school graduation.
The vote on the school board was a close one, as the resolution lowering the threshold score passed by one vote, 6-to-5. Some of those voting against the measure expressed concerns about college and workforce readiness when lowering the graduation requirement.
One argument made to support the change was that student mental health and wellness had been seriously impacted by the pandemic. While Covid no doubt had its impact, the presentations made by state education officials before the school board showed another major motivation for the change.
In New Jersey, students may qualify for graduation in several ways. The most common is testing through the state assessment test or through appropriate scores on alternative assessment tests. Testing in 2022 was the pathway selected by those who graduated in 78% of the cases.
The remaining ways in which a student can meet the requirement are portfolio appeals and Individualized Education Programs (IEP). The process relies on a collection, or portfolio, of graded student work that shows the required mastery. These portfolio appeals require help from individual school district personnel and are reviewed in Trenton before decisions are made.
In the presentation before the board, state education officials predicted that failure to lower the qualifying test score, in 2024, would result in as many as 40,000 portfolio appeals in English Language Arts (ELA) and 22,000 such appeals in mathematics, with almost 10,000 students needing to do a portfolio appeal in both subject areas. The potential burden on local school districts was seen as overwhelming.
Another way to see the impact of lowering the score is through another slide used in the board presentation. It stated that New Jersey Graduation Proficiency Assessment results rolled out in spring 2022 for juniors showed that in ELA, maintaining a 750-threshold score would result in 39.4% of students graduation ready, while lowering the score to 725 would result in 80.7% of the students graduation ready. The potential burden on the portfolio process would be significantly lessened.
Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill waiving the graduation testing requirement for the 2022-2023 school year. Murphy campaigned in 2017 on a promise to eliminate the high school graduation test requirement. New Jersey is one of 11 states that continues to use an exit exam as a requirement for high school graduation.
The pandemic and its impact are central to most discussions about the distribution of scores on the standardized tests. The presentations to the board showed that more than the pandemic may be at work.
When one considers the use of the more cumbersome portfolio process, the numbers show that use of this pathway to graduation was increasing prior to the pandemic. 
In 2018, approximately 3,400 graduates used the portfolio process to meet the state requirement. In pre-pandemic year 2019, according to the Education Law Center, 5,400 graduates used the portfolio process for ELA and 7,000 for mathematics.
The debate at the board meeting showed there were very different opinions about the cut. 
State Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan argued that the cut was justified, and the 750 threshold was “overreach.” Some board members asked if a high school diploma represented “minimal competence.” The meaning of the diploma was at issue in the debate.
A state Department of Education PowerPoint presentation, in 2021, had state officials no longer discussing high school credentials in terms of “college and career ready” but rather in terms of “high school graduation ready.”
 U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, in a January speech, called on states to keep the standards high, saying, “Today, we raise the bar on education.” 
For the time being, New Jersey has decided to go in a direction already taken by New York, which recently lowered the scores it will take for students to reach “proficiency” in mathematics and ELA. In New York, they called the lower scores “the new normal.” 
Contact the author, Vince Conti, at vconti@cmcherald.com. 

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