New Jersey Board of Education sets lower high school exit exam passing score after narrow vote

A student wearing a blue shirt with curly hair sits at a desk while holding a pencil and staring at a piece of paper.
New Jersey State Board of Education officials continue voted to lower the state’s high school exit exam to 725 in the English language arts and math portions of the test. (Commercial Eye / Getty Images)

After months of deliberation and recommendations from New Jersey’s top education officials, the State Board of Education voted to lower the high school exit exam passing score, a requirement for graduation. 

On Wednesday, board members voted 6-5 to lower the New Jersey Graduation Proficiency Assessment passing score in the English language arts and math portions of the test to 725, down from the original 750 scores. The new scores apply to the classes of 2024 and 2025 and will allow more students to meet graduation requirements next school year, according to analyses provided by department officials.

Board President Kathy Goldenberg had the final vote on the decision and paused before voting in favor of the resolution to lower the passing scores.  

“To be clear, I am listening to the experts in the field that feel that 725 should be the cut score,” Goldenberg said. 

Despite the new changes, state board officials remained split over the decision, citing concerns about ensuring students’ graduation and career readiness. The vote took nearly two hours as board members reignited discussions about the usefulness of the test, the rigor of New Jersey graduation requirements, and the state’s response to helping students post-pandemic. 

“We should think to ourselves as to what do New Jersey students need to know, what kind of level of mastery should they have on a subject matter for us to say here’s your certificate, you have succeeded,” said board Vice President Andrew Mulvihill who voted against the resolution during Wednesday’s meeting.

Similar to April’s board meeting, the New Jersey Department of Education presented an analysis of the spring 2022 high school exit exam results and reiterated its recommendation to lower the passing scores by citing the negative mental health and wellness impacts of the COVID pandemic on students. Last year, high school juniors took the exam as a trial run after Gov. Phil Murphy waived the requirement for the graduating class of 2023 due to the pandemic. 

Of the high school juniors who took the trial run version of the exit exam in 2022, when the passing score was set at 750, 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.

Angelica Allen-McMillan, the acting commissioner for the state’s Department of Education, said the recommendation to lower the passing score to 725 came through the work of educational experts, teams, and multiple discussions among state leaders. They analyzed data, known as performance indicators, that demonstrate mastery of specific knowledge and skills students typically show at different performance levels. 

Board member Joseph Ricca said the expectation to think “that a 17- or an 18-year-old graduating from a public high school in the state of New Jersey has finished learning or is a master in anything” is a “flawed premise.”

“I think what we really need to recognize is providing multiple pathways for students to demonstrate mastery in certain topics as they developmentally progress. But also leaving them a lot of runway to continue to grow,” Ricca added. 

The board’s Wednesday vote also set lower passing scores for alternate assessments that students who don’t pass the high school exit exam can take to meet the graduation requirement. According to state data on Wednesday, approximately 60% of students fulfilled their graduation assessment requirements by using state assessments in 2022, one of several alternatives for students who do not pass their high school exit exam. Alternate assessments include the ACT, PSAT, and SAT, among others.

The state Department of Education also projected that if the board kept the 750 passing scores, the class of 2024 could have resulted in nearly 40,000 portfolio appeals for English language arts and 22,000 for the math portion of the test. Portfolio appeals are a process typically requiring help from a teacher or staff member for students who have not met the exit test requirement. 

In some districts, students must give up an elective during their senior year to take a portfolio preparation course. In other districts, support for the portfolio process is not always available.

The new passing scores approved Wednesday take effect immediately. 

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

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