‘Big Lies’ and Little Ones: E3 Urges NJDOE to Deny Diplomas to Thousands
On April 28, the pro-voucher group E3 released a statement on the fiasco created by the NJ Department of Education’s mishandling of the new Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA). The press release targets the state’s high graduation rate calling it “the big lie” because it includes students who graduate through the alternate AHSA (formerly known as the SRA). E3 urges Commissioner Schundler to ignore NJDOE’s role in this debacle, which resulted in few students passing the test, and to deny diplomas to thousands of students in order to “expose the lie.”
E3’s statement is filled with inaccuracies and misinformation detailed below. Instead of standing up for these students, E3 is using them in its ongoing campaign against public education to promote vouchers. It is also covering up for NJDOE’s gross mishandling of this year’s AHSA test.
The SRA has been an imperfect, but important route to a high school diploma, especially for students who might otherwise have dropped out, including students with limited English and those struggling with personal and academic issues. If NJDOE seeks to implement a different standard for the alternate test than has been used in the past, it is obligated to do so in a way that treats students fairly and adequately prepares them to meet it.
Instead, this year the Department implemented a flawed and unreliable process whose results, according to Department officials, were “a great surprise” with “unintended consequences.” The results were a “surprise” only because NJDOE did not do its homework in rolling out the new AHSA. They were returned to thousands of seniors and their families just three months before senior graduation, with the “unintended consequence” that their futures are now in doubt while the Department scrambles to respond. So far, it is NJDOE that has failed this test.
Below and attached, the E3 statement with annotations in red:
Newark, NJ — April 28, 2010 — Preliminary results for the Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA), the successor for the much-maligned Special Review Assessment (SRA)–a test given to students who failed the state’s standard exit exam as many as three times–show that 90% of the 10,308 students who took the AHSA last year failed it. [AHSA wasn’t given last year. It was first given in January. Note: this is the kind of inconsequential error that can cause someone to fail a standardized multiple choice test.] In 120 districts, not one student passed the language arts portion of the test. In 40 districts, no student passed the math portion. If these students are unable to pass any of the remaining administrations of the AHSA, they will not receive their high school diplomas.
“This is sad; almost as sad as it is obscene,” said Derrell Bradford, Executive Director of Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), which has long opposed the SRA and was instrumental in its reform and transformation to the more transparent and accountable AHSA. [E3 campaigned to eliminate the SRA not to reform it.]
The new AHSA is less transparent and accountable than the former SRA. The Department wanted to keep the results confidential until June—after thousands of students were denied diplomas. The only reason anyone knows the AHSA results is because ELC received them anonymously and cited them in public letter to the Commissioner.
NJDOE told the State Board of Education and the public that the AHSA would be scored by certified NJ educators, but 70% of AHSA papers were scored by non-certified Measurement, Inc employees in North Carolina. At the 4/21 State Board of Education meeting, Department officials acknowledged that the scores were “a great surprise…the mistake that we made was we didn’t field test the scoring.”
Where is the transparency and accountability?
“What’s worse is that the SRA process masked the real problem, K-12 failure, for years. It was a problem New Jersey’s leaders knew we had, but which previous administrations chose to ignore so we could continue to boast about ‘the nation’s highest graduation rate.’ In reality, New Jersey has given thousands of students — almost 60,000 in the last five years — diplomas that were not worth the paper they were printed on.
A recent Rutgers study showed that 40% of Newark SRA graduates between 2003 and 2008 continued their education after high school. Without the SRA, the number of students Newark sent to college would have been cut in half. Whatever its flaws, a program that keeps 12,000 students in school each year and helps 40% of them go on to college is hardly “worthless.”
E3’s rhetoric about “worthless diplomas” is an attempt to minimize the impact of pushing students out of school and into the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s true that too many students are not graduating at all and too many others graduate with inadequate preparation. But it’s also true that students who graduate high school live longer, healthier lives, earn more, do a better job as parents and go to prison less often than those who don’t.
To the extent that the test results are reliable, they should be used to improve the quality and consistency of high school programs. The goal should be to hold adult systems accountable rather than to impose “diploma penalties” on young people.
It’s a case of false advertising if there ever was one. And only now do the students know what the administrators, the teachers, and the status quo knew all along; they were duped into believing they received a quality education, when they were really just drowning in a ocean of failure.”
“What we have to remember is that students have as many as three times to pass the standard High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) before they are allowed to take the AHSA,” said the Rev. Reginald T. Jackson, Executive Director of the Black Ministers’ Council of New Jersey, member of the Orange Public School Board, and longtime advocate for the reform of the state’s alternative assessment. [Students take the AHSA after two attempts to pass the HSPA, not three.] “Students can pass the HSPA with a score of 47% on language arts, and a score of 50% on math. The HSPA is a test the former Commissioner of Education, Lucille Davy, described as ‘middle school level.’ When 90% of students can’t pass the AHSA after failing a middle school level test you can pass with a 50%, with three times to take it…that speaks volumes about the quality of education these students received..or rather, did not receive.”
“We think it says a great deal that, when you move the scoring to a third party, and you remove the possibility of local tampering, we go from almost 100% of students passing the test, to 90% failing it.
There is no evidence to support the claim that “almost 100% of students” passed the SRA. Students often failed the SRA before passing. In fact, E3 complains below that students were given too many opportunities to pass the SRA. No one knows what SRA passing or failure rates have been. In a 2008 white paper, NJDOE admitted SRA data “has been inconsistent and of limited usefulness….only ‘successful’ SRA administrations are reported…No data are collected pertaining to the PATs on which students fail to demonstrate proficiency of the standard, nor are figures collected for students to whom a full series of PATs were administered but who failed to demonstrate proficiency on the required quantity of them. In short, we have little information about student performance levels on the SRA PATs.”
Cheating scandals have long been associated with high stakes standardized testing. The “possibility of local tampering” has not been “removed.” As sociologist Donald Campbell summarized in his ‘Campbell’s law:’ “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”
The test is not the problem. Quality of instruction is the problem. Lying to our children about their education is the problem. Sacrificing their futures for a slogan that appears on NJEA advertising is the problem,” said Jackson.
“When you remove these students from the graduation total, we’re 24th in graduation rate, not first. This is all about protecting that lie.”
E3 says only students who pass the traditional state test should be counted in the graduation totals. There are 24 states that have NO high school exit test (including Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, Maine, Delaware and Pennsylvania). Should their graduation rates be zero? The fact that NJ provides multiple pathways for students to meet state standards and graduate is a positive policy that should be continued.
Making students “disappear” because of their test scores is a perfect metaphor for what E3 is proposing. For E3, only test scores count. Staying in school and completing all course credits and other requirements is part of the “lie.” Test scores are the “truth.”
The State Board of Education made changes to the alternate route process in 2009. [Commissioner Davy made the changes, not the State Board. She also rejected the recommendations of the SRA Advisory Council that NJDOE should use an audit system to verify scoring and conduct a pilot before fully implementing the changes.] Changes included moving to outside scoring, [At a cost of $1.1 million to pay a commercial vendor to do scoring that teachers previously had done at no extra cost to the State.] and containing the administration of the AHSA to specific time periods [thereby turning the SRA into another formalized testing situation and defeating the very purposes for which the alternative assessment was created, including extended time for English Language Learners].
The SRA, conversely, was characterized by teachers “coaching” students, and repeat administrations of the test until students finally passed it. [If no one ever failed SRA, why where there “repeat administrations” until students “finally” passed?]
To this point, the current AHSA administration guidelines assert that: “once a student begins testing, the teacher or administrator who is administering the ASHA may not assist the student in any way.”
A study of 2008-2009 SRA data, requested by the State Board of Education, analyzed the coursework of students who took the SRA. Board members thought it possible that failure on the HSPA — which was largely in math — could have been due to limited course offerings at student’s high schools.
This was not the case, however. The Department of Education (DOE) discovered that 90% of SRA users took, and apparently passed, [Note “apparently.” These are self-reported course enrollment figures from schools required to fill out an internet survey. NJDOE has no data about whether these students passed the courses or ever came to class.]Algebra I. A stunning 86% took and passed Geometry, while 71% and 91% took and passed Algebra II and Biology, respectively.
“Not only is a high school diploma no longer a reliable predictor of academic achievement in this state, high school itself is no longer a reliable predictor. Nothing short of the integrity of the state’s K-12 public school system is at stake here,” said Bradford.
The Education Law Center and other groups are pressuring the state’s Commissioner of Education to “fix” the problem the AHSA has revealed, and give these students a high school diploma.
All previous high stakes graduation tests, including the HSPA, were implemented only after multiple years of field testing. Because that was not done with the AHSA, this year’s results should be treated as the pilot that NJDOE should have conducted in the first place. Individual graduation decisions for this year should be made by the districts, schools and educators that know these students best, as was done under the previous guidelines. The SRA Advisory Council—whose recommendations for an audit system and a pilot to verify the new AHSA process were rejected by NJDOE—should be reconvened to develop a more credible process for 2010-2011.
“There is tremendous pressure on the Commissioner to continue the scam here. Make no mistake. I think it’s terrible that many, if not all, of these students may not receive a diploma in the remaining test administrations; even with the extra help I have been told the DOE intends to provide them. [This ‘extra help’ is an online computer program for those districts that are able to hold any summer programs in the current budget climate.] But this is a wake-up call; to our parents, our students, our legislators, and our taxpayers. We’ve been lied to, and telling a lie so you don’t hurt someone’s feelings only makes the lie worse,” said Jackson. “The Commissioner, the Governor, on this thing, they have to let the chips fall where they may. [The “chips,” in this case, are the lives and futures of thousands of young people. If E3 prevails, they will “fall” into the streets, the unemployment lines, the gangs and the prisons.] Honesty is a key to reform…and the state’s graduation rate is ‘the big lie.’”
NJ’s relatively high graduation rate is a significant accomplishment despite the continuing gaps in achievement and opportunity that persist. The point is to close those gaps, not increase the dropout rate.
NJ already has over 100,000 young people between the ages of 18 and 24 who are unemployed and not in school. The NJ High School Graduation campaign reported that in 2007, 19,000 students failed to graduate at a lifetime cost in lost earnings of $4.9 billion. That same year, 11,474 students used the SRA to earn their high school diplomas. Which statistic poses a bigger threat to NJ’s future?
The “big lie” here, built on the many small ones in this press release, is that denying diplomas to thousands of students on the basis of this year’s AHSA test scores is fair, honest, or sensible.