What To Do When Half our Poor Kids Can’t Pass an 8th Grade Test?

While recent New Jersey history is not part of the State Board of Education’s just-released high school graduation requirements, let’s stroll back down memory lane to May 13th, 2005. On that day, William L. Librera, our erstwhile State Education Commissioner, issued a memo to the State Board of Education regarding the controversial Special Review Assessment (SRA), the high school graduation test used for kids who can’t pass the HSPA, a middle school level test. It reads in part,

Approximately 18 months ago, the Department of Education issued and circulated a white paper on the Special Review Assessment (SRA). [See here.] The white paper concluded that the SRA had evolved from a program designed to serve a small number of students who, because of special needs or extraordinary circumstances, could not pass the High School Proficiency Test (HSPA) into an alternate statewide test that enabled approximately 20% of the high school senior students each year to get diplomas, without having passed the regular state graduation test.

This evolution went well beyond the original intent, and the present results suggest that approximately one-fifth of our students are unable to meet the state requirement for a diploma. This raises disturbing questions and conclusions about the ability of a large portion of our student to learn and master important content. Today, after 18 months of review and experiences with our summer institutes, our conclusions are no different. The SRA hurts the very students we seek to help, and it must be replaced.

Question: Why don’t we follow Librera’s directive and the recommendation of the D.O.E. (at least the 2003 D.O.E.) and eliminate the SRA?

Answer: Because elimination of the SRA will dramatically reduce our much-touted high school graduation rate and make the current Administration look bad. And limiting high school graduation to HSPA passers will mean that many poor kids will go through our public school system and never receive a high school diploma.

We’ve reduced the number of kids who use the SRA to graduate from about 20% to 12%, but that’s just an average. At Camden High, 51.8% of kids graduated through the SRA process in 2008. In Bergen County’s Indian Hills High, 4.2% did. (DOE data here.) Talk about in your face: are we ready to look squarely at the fact that the achievement gap in New Jersey is alive and well?

The Education Law Center and CUNY Graduate Center published a lengthy, research-driven treatise in 2007 called “New Jersey’s SRA: Loophole or Lifeline?” (Tip: if you want to see some sample questions, click on the link and go to page 37.) Their conclusion:

The plans to eliminate the SRA as an alternate route to a diploma should be revisited. Currently, over 13,000 students, more than a third of Abbott graduates and 20% of all New Jersey graduates, receive their diplomas through SRA. Eliminating the SRA before significant and demonstrable improvements are made in secondary programs and supports would be punitive to students and have disparate impact on immigrant youth and youth of color. It would also negatively affect the climate for reform. The existing lack of coordination and alignment between High School Redesign/ADP, SEI, and proposed changes in SRA increases the prospects that fragmented policy initiatives will raise dropout rates, lower graduation rates, and disproportionately affect students of color. This would, almost by definition, constitute bad public policy.

Translation: New Jersey’s public education system doesn’t support poor kids. (Sidenote: in some ways, the ELC paper is confirmation that the Abbott system doesn’t work, or at least hasn’t worked yet.) While there are a number of initiatives underway to address the shortcomings, eliminating the SRA would be unfair to “students of color” because the system is still broken . According to ELC, we’ve got to keep awarding diplomas to kids who can’t pass the standard assessment because we haven’t built the supports they need to reach the benchmarks and we just cause further damage by denying diplomas.

So, we arrive at a compromise, articulated by current Commissioner Lucille Davy at an NJEA meeting:

“The SRA is a legitimate concern for legislators and the public,” Davy noted, given the large numbers of students using this option. But she believes that the legislature won’t eliminate the SRA if it is convinced that changes are being made. “We know we need an alternative exam; we just don’t know what it will look like yet,” she said.

So we’re not eliminating; we’re tweaking, adjusting, implementing some oversight in the scoring. (Right now the same teachers who instruct the kids grade the assessment; there’s a proposal to move the grading to an external agency.) That’s fine. But when do we directly address the fact that N.J.’s public educational model works well for privileged kid but leaves about half of our poor kids without the skills they need to pass an 8th grade test? If we don’t admit the system is broken, how can we fix it?

What do you think?

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