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New Jersey Boosts Requirements, Tightens Alternative Exit Exam

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New Jersey's state board of education today raised the bar for high school graduation at the same time that it tightened up the loopholes kids have used to get out. I'll explain more in a second; but pay attention to how this plays out. It will be interesting to districts nationwide as they try to figure out how to ask more of high school students without driving them out the door early, and how to assess teenagers' learning in more authentic ways.

Here is what happened in the Garden State today: The state board of education approved new graduation requirements, including specifying mathematics and science sequences, and adding a requirement that students take a half-year of economics and financial literacy. The board also approved the phase-out of the state's high school test, known as the HSPA, in favor of developing a battery of end-of-course exams. They're already piloting those in algebra and biology, and feedback from those try-outs will aid the development of additional tests. Kids will have to pass a certain number of these end-of-course exams to graduate, but Jersey officials are still some distance away from knowing how many.

For my money, though, this is the part where it gets really interesting: The board also approved the phaseout of the alternative high school exam known as the SRA. Teenagers who have repeatedly failed the HSPA have used this route out of New Jersey's high schools in droves, sparking criticism that close to 15 percent of that state's graduates have diplomas of questionable worth. The SRA consists of a broad range of "tasks" students do one-on-one with staff to demonstrate mastery of course content. It is locally developed and scored.

When the state proposed eliminating the SRA a few years back, it caused quite a stir. (I wrote about much of what came to pass today when it was in proposal form here.) The state's press release on it is here.

The board's action today narrows the window of time for the SRA, so that students and teachers must complete the various tasks within weeks rather than months. And it mandates that they be scored by a panel of teachers trained by the state.

In a conference call with reporters, Commissioner of Education Lucille E. Davy said the revamped SRA isn't long for this world, either. Since it's an alternative to the HSPA, and that is being phased out, the SRA will go down the tubes along with it, she said. There will be an alternative way for students to demonstrate mastery, but the state hasn't figured out yet what that will look like, Davy said.

It could be that the future alternative-exit exam could mirror the performance-based flavor that New Jersey has been trying to capture. When I asked her about the future alternative-exit exam, she pointed out that the new end-of-course tests are already going in that direction. For instance, the biology exam requires students to solve a real-life problem and explain why they tackled it the way they did.

As the state enters this new phase of high school assessment, a few questions hover for me: How will the tightening-up of the SRA affect graduation rates? (Associated Press reporter Geoff Mulvihill asked Davy this, and she said there was "no way to know.") How well will the new end-of-course tests capture what students have learned? And will the next-generation alternative-exit exam be rigorous enough to prove real mastery, yet "alternative" enough to let teenagers who struggle with mainstream ways of doing business show that they really know their stuff?

Davy said that if the new system demands too much of teenagers too quickly, officials are open to changing its pacing. But she expressed confidence that students can meet the new challenges.

"I reject the notion that there are students for whom this is not achievable or attainable," she said.

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NJ's SRA is not "locally developed." The SRA's performance assessment tasks (PATs) are developed by the same testing vendor that creates the state's regular exit test, the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) and are distributed to the districts by the State. The content and difficulty of the PATs are essentially the same as the HSPA. It's the reliability and consistency of the local scoring, not the content of the assessment, that's been the main issue.

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