New Jersey Board of Education continues to deliberate lower high school exit exam passing score

Rows of graduating students wearing blue, yellow, white and green graduation gowns and caps listen to a speaker.
New Jersey State Board of Education officials continue to weigh changes to the state’s high school exit exam roughly a month after students took the test as a graduation requirement for the first time in recent years. (Carson TerBush / Chalkbeat)

New Jersey officials continue to weigh changes to the state’s high school exit exam roughly a month after students took the test as a graduation requirement for the first time in recent years. 

The State Board of Education is considering a resolution to lower the New Jersey Graduation Proficiency Assessment passing score to 725 following an analysis of the spring 2022 test, which was taken by high school juniors as a trial run. 

Currently, New Jersey students must get a 750 or higher in the English language arts and math portions of the test. High school juniors must pass the test to earn a high school diploma. 

The New Jersey Department of Education presented an analysis of last year’s results on Wednesday and recommended the board lower the passing score. But some board members fear lowering state standards could result in students who are not college ready. 

The board did not vote on the resolution, which would have gone into effect in early May and applied to the class of 2024 and 2025 and would likely have allowed more students to meet graduation requirements next school year. 

The recommendations proposed Wednesday would also make it easier for students to pass the exam amid years of disruption and learning loss caused by COVID, as well as mental health challenges among school-age children. That could ultimately help boost the state’s graduation rate, which has remained relatively stable over the last five years despite the pandemic’s effects and suspension of graduation assessment requirements. 

The state had a 90.9% four-year graduation rate for the class of 2022, according to state data presented on Wednesday.

In March, high school juniors took the exit exam as a graduation requirement for the first time in four years. The pandemic forced Gov. Phil Murphy to suspend the test in 2020 and 2021 along with other state standardized exams. Murphy also waived the requirement for the class of 2023 but reinstated it for the class of 2024 and 2025. 

Of the high school juniors that took the trial run version of the exit exam last spring, only 39% passed the English language arts portion, while 50% passed math, according to state data. If the passing score had been lowered to 725 last spring, 57% of students would have passed math while 81% would have passed English language arts, according to data presented on Wednesday. 

According to the Department’s Acting Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan, getting a 725 on the test is “just the right standard” while a 750 is “a more determined opportunity to further highlight what we want our students to know and do.” She also said the department had a responsibility to share “the adverse impacts” they believe keeping the score at 750 could have on students. 

During Wednesday’s presentation, the department said its data found that a 750 passing score had an emotional effect on some students, especially students who have never missed a testing mark previously. It also limits the number of elective courses a student could participate in, since some might have to take a class senior year to prepare to retake the exit exam or an alternative test. Districts could also face additional burdens in paperwork and appeals to ensure students participate in graduation activities, the department added. 

As board members weighed their options, some hinted at the redundancy in their discussion as it mirrored similar concerns raised during last year’s conversation on the topic. 

Board member Elaine Bobrove said the board was “back to apples and oranges” in considering the differences between getting a 725 and a 750 on the test. Board member Nedd Johnson pointed to the department’s analysis and its expert opinion to lower the passing score. 

“It’s pretty clear, from what I see, that the recommendation to the [passing] score going to 725 is based on the significant impact on student performance,” Johnson said. 

Some members also called on the legislature to eliminate the exam altogether. Currently, New Jersey is one of nine states that requires a high school exit exam — that figure includes the state’s resumption of the requirement for the class of 2024. However, many states have ended exit test mandates in recent years due to concerns including unfair burdens they impose on some students and their effectiveness in determining college and career readiness. 

Lawmakers are also considering a bill to eliminate the test requirement altogether. Last month, the assembly’s education committee unanimously approved Assembly Bill 4639, which would eliminate the exam as a requirement for New Jersey high schoolers. The bill is currently in the assembly’s community development and affairs committee. 

“What we’re doing here is a fallacy,” said board member Ron Butcher. “We need to as a board go on the record recommending we get this removed.”

The board’s vice president, Andrew Mulvihill, disagreed and asked the board to consider the impact of “lowering the standards” in reaction to the learning loss experienced by students during the pandemic. 

“I don’t think we should lower standards in reaction to COVID. I’m concerned about the approach we seem to be taking,” Mulvihill said. “I think our job is to say, what does a diploma in New Jersey mean and how do we know when kids are college and career ready?”

Jessie Gomez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org.

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