N.J. Called to Task Over New Graduation Rules

     NEWARK, N.J. (CN) – The parents of five high school students and the Education Law Center are challenging New Jersey’s new diploma requirements, claiming the state didn’t follow its rules in making the changes.
     In a petition filed with the New Jersey Education Commissioner on September 1, the families, all of whose members are identified only by their initials, claim the state Department of Education failed “to comply with the statutory and regulatory requirements governing the issuance of State-endorsed high school diplomas.”
     The petition says that in 1979, New Jersey established its High School Graduation Standards Act to develop standards for graduation including a state assessment test. It claims that “under the Act and current DOE regulations, students have multiple opportunities during the eleventh and twelfth grades to take the State high school graduation exams – the HSPA (High School Proficiency Assessment) or the AHSA (Alternative High School Assessment) – in order to obtain a State-endorsed diploma.”
     However, the petitioners say that in June 2010, the state Board of Education adopted a resolution to incorporate the new Common Core Standards, and later announced in 2011 that they had joined the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, described in the filing as “a multi-state consortium charged with developing new assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards.”
     The petition goes on to say that in April 2012, Gov. Chris Christie released a report that recommended that DOE “develop a transition that will give both students and schools a chance to adapt to the new PARCC assessments,” and that in February 2013, the Education Department “published proposed amendments to the standards and assessment regulations.”
     After learning of the proposed amendments, the Education Law Center says it testified before the board in March 2013 outlining its concerns about the changes and how they were enacted.
     It noted that the Education Department “had announced plans to phase out HSPA and AHSA and replace them with the new PARCC assessments, but had failed to specify whether or how these new assessments would be used as a graduation requirement.”
     The center says it urged the state board to clarify these issues before adopting the proposed regulations, but in 2014 and 2015, “the DOE issued several memoranda to districts imposing new graduation requirements for students in the 2016, 2017 and 2018 classes,” replacing the HSPA and AHSA assessments, and “did not publish these new requirements as proposed rules to amend the current regulations.”
     It also claims the new requirements rely on student’s scores from SAT and ACT college entrance exams that require additional payment, which raises fears about equal access for low-income students.
     Despite the diploma requirement changes, the petitioners say that “the DOE has not, to date, either proposed or adopted the new graduation requirements set forth in the various memoranda as regulations,” which they claim they are required to do under the Administrative Procedure Act.
     It also claims that “DOE’s failure to revise its current regulation … has caused districts to provide parents and students with inconsistent, confusing and variable information on the requirements for graduation.”
     “Since 1979, whenever it has introduced new high school graduation tests, DOE has provided for several years of field testing before applying the test results to receipt of a high school diploma,” the petition says. “This ‘due notice’ testing period is necessary to ensure the validity and reliability of new exams” and “provide educators, families and students with advance notice of new requirements.”
     In spite of this history, they claim that the Department of Education “has discontinued use of the HSPA and AHSA as the State test requirement for high school graduation, and directed and transition to PARCC assessments” even though the PARCC tests “have not undergone multiple years of ‘due notice’ testing before their use to fulfill graduation requirements”
     The center says it twice alerted the education commissioner of the need to comply with the Administrative Procedure Act’s rules when imposing new graduation requirements, but received no response either time.
     As a result, the petitioners claim they “have not been afforded the opportunities established under applicable law for students to obtain a State-endorsed diploma and have not received timely and reliable information, consistent with law, about the requirements for high school graduation.”
     The plaintiffs seek to force the state to either apply the graduation requirements lawfully on the books or “immediately propose and adopt amendments … to the current graduation requirements” in a way that adheres to law.
     The state Department of Education did not respond to a requests for comment about the petition, and has not publicly commented on the allegations since they were filed.
     The petitioners are represented by David Sciarra of the Education Law Center; Edward Barocas of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey; and Lawrence Lustberg of Gibbons PC in Newark.
     In a statement released by the ACLU last week, Linda Reid, the grandmother of one of the petitioners, said, “this is a matter of basic fairness to students and families” and that “changes in high school graduation requirements require the adoption of new regulations by the State Board of Education, an opportunity for public comment about those regulations, and due notice for the parents and students who will be affected. None of that happened.”
     Newark High School senior Tanasia Brown, another one of the petitioners, added that “there has been so much confusion and controversy about New Jersey tests and standards over the past year that students and parents don’t know what’s going on.”

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