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New Jersey students take high school exit exam amid concerns about passing score, usefulness

A man wearing a red and black robe shakes hand with a person wearing a blue robe sunglasses and a hat worn by graduating students.

Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León at a graduation ceremony in 2018. New Jersey reinstated the graduation test requirement for the Class of 2024 after a four-year pause related to the pandemic.

Patrick Wall / Chalkbeat

For the first time in four years, thousands of New Jersey students will take the state’s high school exit exam this week as a graduation requirement.

The testing comes as some states roll back the mandate and concerns persist about the test’s usefulness and ability to measure college readiness.

From 1979 until 2020, the state administered some version of the New Jersey Graduation Proficiency Assessment. But in 2020 and 2021, Gov. Phil Murphy suspended the exit test, which is given to high school juniors, along with other state standardized exams, due to the pandemic. 

Last March, high school juniors took a trial run version of the exit exam after Murphy also waived the requirement for the Class of 2023 due to the pandemic. The state reinstated the requirement for the Class of 2024 and the Class of 2025. Shortly before students took that test, the state board of education raised the passing score for those students from 725 to 750, although the board also said it would revisit that score after reviewing results from the 2022 trial run.

On that draft version of the exam students took last spring, 39% passed the English Language Arts portion, while 50% passed Math in New Jersey, according to state data. Those results came after years of disruption and learning loss caused by COVID, as well as acute mental health challenges among school-age children. 

Those results, along with the fact that the state so far hasn’t revised the passing scores for this year’s exam, have led to some pushback in New Jersey, which is one of nine states that requires a high school exit exam (that figure includes New Jersey’s resumption of the requirement for the Class of 2024). However, many states have ended their exit test mandates in recent years, due to concerns about unfair burdens they impose on some students, among other worries. 

“Implementing a new, harder exit test in the middle of a pandemic, and a pervasive mental health crisis among young people, is unbelievably bad policy,” said Stan Karp, director of the Secondary Reform Project for the Education Law Center, a New Jersey advocacy group. “It’s tone deaf and harmful to students.

This month, Karp and his team sent a letter to the state’s department of education urging for a review of the passing score. They also called the test “high-stakes” for high school students who may have met other graduation requirements, but struggle with standardized assessments. 

The Education Law Center estimates that the higher passing score of 750, instead of the 725 recommended by the department, reduced passing rates by 15% to 20% on each section of the test.

“The validity of the passing score is a matter of significant public consequence. The results of last year’s NJGPA administration emphasize those consequences,” the group wrote.

The state education department had not responded to Chalkbeat’s request for comment about the Education Law Center’s letter at the time of publishing.

Karp and his team have also questioned the usefulness of the test since it is not required by federal mandates, he said. They have questioned its capability to accurately capture “graduation-level competencies” for high school students who already take a slew of state standardized tests and other exams that measure student performance over the course of several years.

For those reasons, Karp and his team are supporting the bipartisan Assembly Bill 4639, which would eliminate the exam as a requirement for New Jersey high schoolers. The bill is currently in the assembly’s education committee and is up for a vote this week. 

“The [NJGPA] does not provide any useful information to teachers or schools. The results arrive at the start of a student’s last year in high school, far too late to have any positive impact on educational programs,” Karp said. 

Newark juniors feel nervous about the exit test

Starting in December, Newark Public Schools required all juniors to attend a Saturday class to prepare for the exam this week. On average, Newark students scored 706 for the English Language Arts portion and 726 for math on the trial exit exam last year — 44 points below the passing score for English and 24 points below the score for math.

Yamia Bermudez, a junior at University High School, said she attended two Saturday sessions and found them “somewhat helpful” in preparing her for the exit test. During the sessions, students worked on a mock test and reviewed questions as a group in order to get a feel for what they could expect, Bermudez said. 

But after taking the first two sections of the English portion of the test this week, Bermudez said the reading passages were boring and the questions confusing. 

“When it was over, everybody was like: That was so confusing, it was so long, like what were they talking about?” said Bermudez about her peers who shared their thoughts after testing on Monday.

This year, the exam is broken down into three, 90-minute sections for English and Language Arts and two 90-minute sections for math. The test is computer-based, and students answer questions on their Chromebooks. Results will be available before the end of the school year in June, according to the district’s letter to parents. 

Bermudez said she feels nervous about her performance on the test so far, but knows she can take an alternative test if she doesn’t pass. 

The state offers a long list of substitute assessments for students who do not pass, such as the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery,  the SAT, and ACT, among others. 

Ultimately, Bermudez said she is confident in the skills she’s learned but could do without another timed test. 

“When it comes to tests, I get stressed, I always overthink, and I end up doing worse than I would have had I just taken the time to calm down,” she said. “But for a state test, you don’t really have time to calm yourself down, you have 90 or 60 minutes to get it done.” 

Jessie Gomez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org.

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