N.J. officials ask judges to let classes of ’19 and ’20 graduate under old rules

(WHYY, file)

(WHYY, file)

With the end of the school year rapidly approaching, the futures of thousands of New Jersey high schoolers are in limbo as the legal battle around graduation testing requirements presses on.

The state Department of Education this week filed a motion for partial reconsideration in an appellate court case that it says is leaving nearly 170,000 current seniors and juniors without a clear path to graduation. The DOE is asking the court to clarify that the recent decision striking down the PARCC graduation requirements will not apply retroactively to students who had met the qualifications as of December 30, 2018.

In that December decision in a lawsuit brought by the Education Law Center, the court invalidated the only graduation-testing regulations on the books. The DOE is trying to patch the resulting hole.

In its motion, the DOE asks the court to allow students in the classes of 2019 and 2020 to be considered for graduation eligibility if they met the old prerequisites: passing the PARCC English Language 10 (ELA) and Algebra 1 assessments, scoring high enough on alternative assessments like the SAT or ACT, or making the grade through an appeals process where they show a portfolio of transcripts, test scores and graded work samples.

The Education Law Center (ELC), in its arguments against those now-invalidated requirements, said state law mandates that students take an 11th-grade graduation assessment before receiving a diploma, not two PARCC tests that can be taken prior to 11th grade.

A lot of uncertainty

Gov. Phil Murphy and his administration, meanwhile, are working to find a way to fulfill his campaign promise of eliminating PARCC altogether.

But in the interim, the court case has left a lot of uncertainty: Will the DOE seek to change the law through the courts or will it work through the Legislature as the ELC wants? And what will happen to the thousands of students set to graduate this year?

The DOE noted in its motion that nearly 7 percent of graduates each year go through alternate requirements in English and math and approximately 6,000 others use the portfolio review process. The department estimates that the remaining 166,000 to 170,000 students set to graduate this year and next — those who have met the requirements by passing one or more components of the PARCC tests — have had the rug pulled out from under them.

“Although they have satisfied the substantive testing requirements established by the Department as a prerequisite to graduation, that achievement has been eviscerated by the court’s decision,” Deputy Attorney General Donna Arons wrote in the motion.

The Education Law Center said, however, that the fix sought by the DOE would still leave thousands of students who did not meet the old, now-invalidated, qualifications without answers.

DOE ‘needs to find a solution’

“We are disappointed,” ELC attorney Jessica Levin said of the department’s motion. “The DOE needs to find a solution that addresses all students, not just those who have fulfilled their illegal requirements,” that were invalidated.

Levin said an alternate solution, one her organization prefers, would be for the department to work with the Legislature to find more suitable graduation requirements and quickly get two proposed bills passed, A-672 and S-558, that would prevent the department from using standardized test scores to determine a student’s eligibility for high-school graduation.

“We want to find a comprehensive way forward for all students so that no one is denied a diploma,” Levin said.

When asked for a comment for this story, the DOE offered the statement Commissioner Lamont Repollet made following the December ruling: “The Department aims to minimize the impacts that any future actions, as a result of this decision, will have on students and schools.”

As far as next steps are concerned, Levin said the Education Law Center will respond to this motion if the court directs it to do so.

In the meantime, all state tests and other assessments will be administered on schedule; they just won’t be used to determine graduation eligibility if the court rejects the DOE’s motion.

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