Gov. Murphy eases diploma requirements, says spring graduation ceremonies unlikely

High school seniors who have not met the state’s assessment requirements due to the coronavirus crisis will be allowed to graduate this year, Gov. Phil Murphy said Tuesday, when he also eased the rules around teacher evaluations.

But, in less welcome news for the class of 2020, Murphy said it seems unlikely that graduation ceremonies scheduled for this spring will proceed as planned.

“I just personally don’t see it,” Murphy said, adding that school districts will decide whether to reschedule the ceremonies for later this year. “I’m not trying to be flippant, but I wouldn’t put any non-refundable checks down on your celebrations right now. I hope I’m wrong, but I fear that I am not.”

Murphy’s bleak outlook on graduation ceremonies echoes Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who last week said it was “more than likely” senior graduation and prom would need to be rescheduled. In a virtual meeting with seniors Friday, Superintendent Roger León said graduation would definitely happen — the only question is when.

“We know we will have a graduation ceremony,” he said. “What we don’t know is its actual date.”

In order to graduate, students must earn a certain number of credits and pass standardized tests in math and English. Typically under state rules, 12th graders who have not passed the tests must submit a portfolio of their work for the state to review. However, the roughly 13,000 seniors who have not yet passed those tests will not have to submit portfolios this year, according to a new executive order that Murphy issued Tuesday in response to the ongoing pandemic.

“The waiver of these student assessment requirements will ensure that no student is left behind or unduly penalized due to these extraordinary circumstances,” Murphy said in a statement.

In addition, the order prohibits this year’s teacher evaluations from factoring in student test scores, a change that seemed inevitable after the state received a federal waiver last month to cancel this year’s mandatory standardized tests. A rule requiring non-tenured teachers to receive three observations has also been waived for this school year.

New Jersey school buildings were forced to close four weeks ago as Murphy ordered a near-total shutdown of the state, which has been one of the worst-hit by the virus. More than 44,000 residents have tested positive for the virus, and more than 1,200 have died, officials said Tuesday.

After canceling this spring’s state tests, the New Jersey education department initially said it would continue the portfolio process for the small number of seniors who had not passed the tests required to graduate. The new order scraps this year’s portfolio process — a move that could affect a sizable number of Newark seniors. Among the class of 2019, 23% of students submitted portfolios to meet the English graduation requirements, and 31% did so in math, according to state data.

In a separate order, Murphy also granted several extensions to school boards — including Newark — that hold spring elections, where voters also weigh in on the districts’ budgets. Murphy previously moved those elections from April to May 12 due to the coronavirus. 

His new order gives the districts three extra weeks, or until June 5, to tell non-tenured teachers whether they have been rehired for next school year. It also extends the terms of current school board members through the May election.

Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon said he appreciated the state’s guidance, especially regarding teacher evaluations. Otherwise, each school district might have come up with different adjustments to its evaluation systems in response to the school closures.

“Who knows how many different opinions would have been out there and how many different yardsticks would have been used during this health crisis,” he said.