Education advocates push once again to end New Jersey’s high school exit exam

Four students take a written test on a wooden desk with a teacher standing in the background.
In the latest effort to end the graduation test, a bill that would eliminate the exam is gaining traction during the New Jersey legislature's lame-duck session. (Hill Street Studios/Getty Images)

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As scores on New Jersey’s high school graduation exit exam show large percentages of students are not “graduation ready,” some education advocates are hoping for a last-ditch effort to eliminate the exit test before the end of the lame-duck legislative session.

It’s the latest effort to end the graduation test, with opponents pushing for nearly 10 years against the various tests that they say can be biased and not an adequate measure of student performance.

The New Jersey Graduation Proficiency Assessment is designed to measure whether students are prepared to graduate based on their knowledge of standards in grade 10 English language arts and Algebra 1 and Geometry. The test serves as the primary pathway for students to fulfill their graduation requirements. In 2023, 80.5% of students passed the ELA exam and 55% of students passed the math exam. Black and Hispanic students, as well as economically disadvantaged students, multilingual learners, and students with disabilities scored below average.

The Assembly passed a bill calling for the elimination of the graduation test in June, but the bill has not moved in the Senate. The legislation has the support of Senate Education Committee Chair Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth) and major education groups, including the New Jersey School Boards Association, New Jersey Association of School Administrators, New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, New Jersey Education Association, and the New Jersey School Counselors Association.

“The fact that it’s passed the Assembly, that you have so many states moving, that you have consensus among all the state associations, this makes it potentially the best chance to get this done,” said Stan Karp of the Education Law Center.

What happens in other states?

Only nine states still have a high school exit exam requirement, down from a high of 27, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. The organization urged the passage of the bill to eliminate the test in a statement on Dec. 6.

Gopal said in a statement that he has requested the bill be posted to the Senate Education Committee a few times, but Senate leadership has not approved it.

Sen. Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) said she has not heard about the bill moving during lame-duck. Last year, Ruiz, who had headed the Senate’s education committee and was the lead on many key education bills, introduced a bill that would make changes to the exit test that stalled in the Assembly after passing the Senate.

She said if neither bill becomes law during the lame-duck session, the goal is to move forward in a coordinated effort with the Department of Education to create the next iteration of graduation exit exams. Ruiz said she is alarmed by recent statewide test scores and believes there needs to be a “full hands-on-deck, urgent approach” to ensure students are learning at grade level.

“There are so many different pathways for graduation that it just becomes a data point for us to create better policies,” Ruiz said.

When could it happen in NJ?

One of the bill’s Senate sponsors, Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), said there is a “good chance” the Senate will act on the bill before the end of the lame-duck session. The bill is one of her priorities to be brought before the education committee. As of 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, it was not listed on the legislative calendar for the meeting on Thursday, Dec. 14.

“One test should not be the sole criteria to determine whether a student should graduate because there are so many students who do not test well under pressure,” Turner said.

Currently, if students do not pass the New Jersey Graduation Proficiency Assessment they can fulfill the graduation requirement by achieving a certain score on other standardized tests including the PSAT, SAT, ACT, or ACCUPLACER or by submitting a portfolio appeal to the state Department of Education.

Turner said grade-point average should be another option to fulfill the graduation requirement. Education Law Center’s Karp said GPAs and course transcripts are more reliable indicators of future success than a single exam.

Karp said the exam hurts the most vulnerable students, including special education students and multilingual learners who typically pass at far lower rates than other students. In 2023, only 17% of students with disabilities and English language learners passed the math exam.

Students with disabilities, English language learners, African American, Latino, Native American, and low-income students are far more likely to be denied a diploma for not passing a test, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.

“It’s important to use testing to hold schools and districts accountable, not to impose punishments on individual students,” Karp said.

Turner said students with a high school diploma are better able to continue their education or get a job to provide for themselves after high school. High school graduates are also likely to earn more money than their peers who don’t graduate, she added.

Making the case for keeping the test

Paula White, executive director of education advocacy group JerseyCAN, said the test should not serve as a barrier to graduation because there are multiple pathways to fulfill the graduation requirement. She said having more data regarding student achievement is a good thing, especially when it comes to promoting accountability for schools.

White added that the test gives students confidence about what their diploma means and offers them something to strive for.

“We understand that students, if they’re doing their best and if they’re compliant with other aspects of the requirements, we don’t want them to be capriciously penalized. With that said they do deserve to have the information,” White said.

The meaning of a high school diploma in New Jersey has also been complicated by changes to graduation requirements over the years. From 2022 to 2023, the State Board of Education lowered the passing score from 750 to 725, which is aligned with the Education Department’s original recommendation. Graduation tests were not administered in 2020 or 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since 1981-82 when a graduation exit exam was first required in New Jersey, the test has taken many different forms.

Hannah Gross covers education and child welfare for NJ Spotlight News via a partnership with Report for America. She covers the full spectrum of education and children’s services in New Jersey and looks especially through the lens of equity and opportunity. This story was first published on NJ Spotlight News, a content partner of Chalkbeat Newark.

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