Stop-gap attempt to ‘avoid chaos’ as court action awaited in PARCC case

A court’s recent strike-down of PARCC graduation requirements has led to widespread confusion. Lawmakers try to keep the requirements in place for current juniors and seniors.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz has sponsored a measure to keep the now-invalidated PARCC graduation requirements in place for juniors and seniors. (Julio Cortez/AP Photo, file)

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz has sponsored a measure to keep the now-invalidated PARCC graduation requirements in place for juniors and seniors. (Julio Cortez/AP Photo, file)

Two efforts are ongoing to maintain passage of the PARCC test as a state graduation requirement — just for the next few years — in order to ensure continuity for today’s high school students. Either measure will depend on the support of Gov. Phil Murphy who has long promised to eliminate PARCC testing and has yet to weigh in on allowing its continued use.

State legislators have introduced a bill to try to quickly resolve a predicament made by an appellate court decision in December to eliminate PARCC as a state graduation requirement. At the same time, the state Department of Education has been instructed to respond to the ongoing appeals process, possibly assuring students that they can continue with current graduation guidelines for the foreseeable future.

Until either of these actions occur, the public cannot be certain that high school students — particularly seniors and juniors — will be able to graduate high school on time.

Lawmakers in a Senate budget committee session on Thursday voted to pass a measure sponsored by Sen. Teresa Ruiz (S-3381) that they say would keep the now-invalidated PARCC graduation requirements in place for juniors and seniors without violating state statute. The appellate court’s decision to strike down those assessment requirements left close to 170,000 students without clear guidance on whether or not they will be graduating. The court ruled that the law requires one 11th grade assessment and that PARCC — which has two components and can be taken in multiple grades — does not align with legislative intent.

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“Everyone is just trying to be sure that in a month when testing is there, in a month when people are looking to scramble that we have something in place,” Ruiz (D-Essex) said. She added that she has been working with the Murphy administration which requested that her bill be posted. “We’re not reinventing the wheel here,” Ruiz said. “We’re just trying to clean up something to avoid chaos.”

Administration has until Monday to respond

Meanwhile, Judge Carmen Messano — the judge in the appellate court case brought by the Education Law Center (ELC) and others — issued a letter on Wednesday giving the Murphy administration until February 11 to respond to the ELC’s request to “maintain the current regulations’ pathways to graduation for the 2019 class, and making those available to students in classes graduating in 2020, 2021, and 2022.”

Because of the uncertainty, schools are feeling the crunch as districts prepare to administer the PARCC exams to thousands of students while thousands more were depending on those scores to earn a diploma in June.

At this point, advocates and officials on both sides of the issue agree that something must be done soon to provide a sense of security for current high school students, but what they disagree on is the timeline.

“It seems like we are more aligned than anything else in all of this,” Ruiz said to ELC policy and outreach director Sharon Krengel. “I know your specific request is to wait until Monday,” Ruiz said, “but we have been working with the administration on this.” Monday is when the Department of Education is required to respond to the judge in the case brought by the ELC and others.

“This bill is creating a quick fix,” Ruiz said, offering her legislation as a protective layer “if in fact the courts turn around and say you have to administer an 11th grade exam.”

What’s in the Ruiz bill?

Ruiz’s bill, which passed easily through the budget committee by a vote of 10-2 — Sens. Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) and Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer) abstained — would only apply to the classes of 2019 and 2020, that is current juniors and seniors. The bill, Ruiz said, would codify what has been in practice in high schools since a Board of Education vote in 2016.

It reconfirms the state law that an exit test will be required to graduate and those who do not pass may retake it. It also adds a grandfather clause that those in the graduating classes of 2019 and 2020 can use the old requirements — passing PARCC ELA 10 and Algebra 1, using scores from alternative tests like the SAT or ACT, or appealing through a portfolio review process that takes into account a student’s grades, transcript and remediation courses — to get them through these next two years. For the class of 2021 and after, the bill says that a new test or assessment system will have to be “developed or designated” by the Commissioner of Education, with the approval of the State Board of Education.

Ruiz told the committee hearing she would be open to expanding that grandfather clause to cover all the current high school classes “if we get to that point and there is nothing new.”

“The DOE is aggressively moving toward a next-generation test, getting different providers and working with different groups so what we didn’t want to do is change the statute and find ourselves in the same situation that, quite frankly, we are in today,” Ruiz said.

A separate measure has been introduced in the Assembly (A-672) that would temporarily suspend graduation testing requirements entirely, a move advocates say would provide the Legislature time to hold hearings on the issue.

Bill opponents wanted to wait

Krengel and other advocates who testified against the bill expressed their desire for no action to be taken until Monday when the DOE’s response in the court case is due.

“The ELC along with the ACLU has asked the court to extend [the requirements] to all four classes currently in high school since … all of them have relied on the regime in place for graduation and that’s what their expectation is,” Krengel said. She added that a court decision may “alleviate the need for this bill and protect additional students that are not covered” — specifically students who did not fulfill the PARCC requirement or only partially completed it.

The ELC has argued in its court filings that the state’s suggested fix to allow students to graduate under the old requirements leaves out “30,000-35,000 students in the junior and senior classes who had not yet met the requirement, thousands more who had only partially satisfied it, and an unknown number of the roughly 200,000 sophomores and freshmen who have yet to satisfy the requirement.”

Ruiz and Senate Budget Committee chair Paul Sarlo (D-Essex) emphasized that the hearing was only about the bill to allow the old requirements to be used for current high schoolers and not a debate about whether or not the state should use PARCC at all, but some attendees left the State House chamber more confused than they entered.

“We’re not arguing … that the test we have in place is the best test, we’re not arguing that it captures everybody,” Ruiz said. “We know we have a very rigorous portfolio assessment process that if you do not pass the test you can seek this avenue.”

One parent: it’s ‘mind-boggling’

Lisa Rodgers, a parent from South Brunswick, said she is uncertain whether her daughter could graduate as she never took a PARCC exam even though she took the SAT, PSAT, ACT and has earned high grades.

“The confusion is mind-boggling to me right now. It is unclear what is going on,” Rodgers testified. She said she is also concerned that schools may not have enough resources to handle an influx of portfolio reviews if the testing requirement is not sorted out in time. “We need more discussion.”

Even lawmakers expressed frustration with the issue.

“I find it confusing, even though I’ve had it explained to me a few times today,” Sen. Greenstein said, abstaining from the vote. “Hopefully we’ll have clarification in the next few days.”

As for a timeline, Ruiz said though her bill passed out of committee yesterday, it will still need to find a companion bill in the Assembly and then be put to a vote, hopefully before budget negotiations begin and the Legislature shifts its focus.

She added that her bill does not create new regulations or make any determination about PARCC but “anyone who has current opposition to the standards and regulations…will still have those oppositions. I don’t agree with them, but I understand that and respect it.”

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