Commentary: Like it or not, Camden isn’t the only district using the ‘graduation loophole’

On Monday the Courier-Post asserted that Camden Public Schools conceals an “eye-popping” and “unique” percentage of high school seniors who graduate through an appeals process, rather than through passing a state standardized test. The Post alleges, in an article entitled “Graduation Loophole Common in Camden,” that “finding another example to compare Camden’s appeals percentage against is impossible” and “this revelation is a “wrinkle in the graduation statistics that appears unique to Camden — and troubling to the state.”

Question: What’s really going on in Camden?

Answer: Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard is being honest about a practice common to many of N.J.’s poorest school districts.

New Jersey has traditionally required that high school graduates pass a test called the HSPA, or the High School Proficiency Assessment (although the advent of the PARCC test next month will prompt other alternatives). The HSPA isn’t very hard: both Commissioner Lucille Davie, appointed by Gov. Corzine, and Commissioner Chris Cerf, appointed by Gov. Christie, have referred to the assessment as an 8th or 9th grade level test. 

But some students, particularly those from low-income districts, can’t demonstrate HSPA-measured proficiency in language arts and math, even after multiple attempts. The next step for these students is the AHSA, or the Alternative High School Assessment. Finally, students who fail both the HSPA and the AHSA are eligible to have their district file an appeal, which the D.O.E. defines as “a portfolio designed to demonstrate through other indicators that they have successfully met the graduation requirement.”

Read: Profile of N.J.’s High School Exit Exam Policies

Many of N.J.’s neediest districts have high percentages of students who graduate high school through the appeals process. Many of N.J.’s wealthiest districts have low percentages. Indeed, the Courier-Post article inadvertently illustrates this disparity by comparing the appeals rate in Camden (median family income: $29,118) with the appeals rate in nearby Haddonfield (median family income: $129,100). In New Jersey, great schools come bundled with granite countertops.

Camden Public Schools is trying to address these inequities straight-on. In December Superintendent Rouhanifard announced some good news (a significant increase in the School District’s four-year graduation rate from 51 percent in 2012 to 62 percent in 2014) but didn’t shy away from alerting the community that “we need to do more to serve all our students.”  

“The Class of 2014 is composed of 615 students who entered 9th grade in 2010 and graduated from one of the five District high schools,” explained Rouhanifard.  “About one-third of graduates (31 percent) earned their diploma through the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA), while nearly half of graduates (48 percent) earned their diploma through the appeals process.”

Aha! The Courier-Post’s “unique” and “eye-popping” loophole!

Not so.  Camden students who graduate through pathways other than the HSPA have company. The Press of Atlantic City reported last year that more than half the students in 25 poor urban high schools in N.J. availed themselves of either the AHSA or the appeals process. (The D.O.E. doesn’t differentiate the data, at least to the public.)  According to the 2013-2014 School Performance Reports, at Trenton Central High School 38 percent of high school students graduated without passing the HSPA. At Barringer High School in Newark, 63 percent of high school students graduated without passing the HSPA. At Lakewood High Schools 43 percent of graduating seniors used either the AHSA or the appeals process and in Plainfield High School 63 percent did. 

Now, one could argue that New Jersey artificially inflates graduation rates by providing a menu of graduation pathways. Or one could argue that some districts overuse the AHSA and the appeals process. But it’s not a “loophole” and it isn’t endemic to Camden. 

The irony here, of course, is that Rouhanifard has made a commitment to collaboration and honesty with the community and that commitment includes sharing accurate information about the district’s challenges. 

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Laura Waters is vice president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.

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