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New Jersey Settles Lawsuit Over Graduation Rules

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New Jersey has settled a lawsuit over its new graduation rules by ensuring options and protections for this year's seniors. 

The settlement agreement, approved Friday, doesn't change the new graduation requirements that the state announced in 2014 and 2015. But since those changes have not been finalized in the state administrative code yet, the settlement serves as official clarification of the requirements for the graduating classes of 2016 and beyond.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Education Law Center filed suit against the state education department last year on behalf of students and their families because the state changed its graduation rules for the classes of 2016 through 2019 in a series of memorandums sent to districts, without providing public notice and time to comment, as required by state law.

As Education Week reported in its interactive list of states' 2015-16 tests, New Jersey students must reach threshold scores on the PARCC, ACT, ACT Aspire, PSAT, SAT, Accuplacer, or ASVAB-AFQT (used for military enlistment), or complete a portfolio showing mastery of state standards, in order to graduate.

The settlement agreement makes clear that districts, rather than the state, will review students' portfolios, although the state will review the collections of work if district staff members decide that they fall short of demonstrating mastery. The agreement specifies that any student—not just those who don't meet testing thresholds—can use the portfolio process as a graduation pathway.

"All students who have not yet satisfied the state assessment requirement for graduation shall have access to the district portfolio review," the settlement says. "Access does not depend on participation or performance on the assessments previously listed in the [department of education] memos as options for satisfying the state testing requirement."

The agreement also lays out a timetable and documentation requirements the state must follow if students fail to meet the minimum test scores for graduation or their portfolios must be reviewed. The lawyers' groups said that 10,000 to 20,000 seniors still had not met state testing requirements as of mid-April. The agreement allows students to participate in graduation ceremonies even if their portfolios are still being reviewed.

"The State Education Department placed students in an untenable situation by ignoring the law and imposing new graduation requirements by fiat, which it is not permitted to do," Ed Barcoas, the legal director of the ACLU-NJ, said in a statement. "Through this settlement, we hope to remove some of the hurdles the Department placed in front of students, as the window of time before graduation rapidly closes."


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