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New Jersey Students Mobilize to Block Graduation Requirements

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Four New Jersey students and their parents have taken legal action to challenge the state education commissioner's decision to require them to pass PARCC or score high enough on the SAT or the ACT in order to graduate from high school.

In a petition filed Sept. 1, the students argue that Commissioner of Education David C. Hespe didn't abide by state requirements when he sent a memo to district leaders last fall notifying them of new graduation requirements.

The change was made without the required adoption of state regulations, the students argue. A team of lawyers led by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and the Education Law Center filed the petition with the department of education, and expect it to be heard by an administrative law judge.

In his memo last September, Hespe said that the class of 2015 would be the last required to pass the state's existing graduation exam, the High School Proficiency Assessment, which is required by state regulations.

Beginning with the class of 2016, students will have to reach an as-yet-unspecified score on the PARCC exam, or a 400 per subject of the SAT, or a 16 per subject on the ACT. They may opt instead to use Accuplacer, a commonly used test used in college course-placement decisions, or the ASVAB, the battery of tests used for entrance into the military. If they fall short of prescribed cut scores on any of those exams, they have the alternative of demonstrating proficiency by portfolio review.

Hespe acknowledged in the memo that moving from the previous exit exam to PARCC end-of-course tests does "present some short-term challenges." To manage that transition, the graduating classes of 2016, 2017 and 2018 will be able to use passing scores on PARCC or on the college-entrance exams, or through portfolio assessment.

Of particular concern to the student plaintiffs is the absence of any alternative graduation exam for English learners and students with disabilities. Previously, the state offered the Alternative High School Assessment, but that test was not one of the options Hespe specified in his memo, the petition says.

The petition also raises a question about whether the state would cover the $50-plus fee for students to take the SAT or the ACT if they chose those methods to demonstrate high school competency.

The students and their families want the judge to bar the state from using PARCC, the ACT or the SAT as graduation requirements until it drafts appropriate regulations and gives the public a chance to comment on them.

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