Shelley Skinner/Patricia Morgan
Imagine being a high school graduate and finding out a few months before your big day that a court decision has put in jeopardy your ability to walk across the stage and receive a diploma. Yes, for four years, you followed the rules, took the assessments and exams and all of a sudden an Appellate Court, that you didn’t know existed, has decided the rules you followed weren’t the right rules.
That is the reality for 170,000 New Jersey high school students who as of this moment have no clear path to graduation. For years, New Jersey high school students have had to pass the Algebra 1 assessment (anytime from 7th grade to 11th grade) and the English assessment given in 10th grade. These exams ensured that students who graduated had the skills required to attend college and be ready for the workforce.
The court decided that these exams, because they weren’t given in 11th grade as indicated in statute, violated the law. Today’s seniors can’t go back in time to 11th grade to have a do-over and there is no readily available exam meeting the requirements set forth by the court. So without an immediate legislative remedy, current high school seniors will be unable to graduate this spring.
This court decision presents two very real issues for students, families and the employers. First, to ensure fairness and respect for current juniors and seniors, legislation must be passed quickly to guarantee graduation for those students who met the rules that were in place when they began their high school journey. Any other option that retroactively changes the rules would cause considerable confusion and disruption and impose unfair obligations on students who did what they were supposed to do.
The second, and the larger issue, is what New Jersey will expect of its high school graduates moving forward. The court’s decision has left a requirement that students simply pass a graduation assessment in the 11th grade. The world is too competitive for New Jersey to be satisfied with our students simply passing a graduation assessment of undetermined quality at some point in their junior year or worse, no assessment at all. The real issue is ensuring that graduating from a New Jersey high school means something — that our high school diploma provides a degree of certainty, and that our students are prepared for college and career.
Over the past several years, New Jersey has been a leader in continuing to raise the academic bar for its K-12 students. A diploma from the state of New Jersey should represent mastery of rigorous college and career ready content providing a solid academic foundation for success in post-secondary life. Twenty-two of our sister states require high school students to take an assessment in order to graduate. This begs the question why some New Jersey education groups are suggesting suspending the use of standardized testing as a graduation requirement for the 2019-2020 school year. Any suspension of an assessment requirement is, in essence, opening the door to permanently weakening graduation assessments. It would move us backwards in a world requiring more education and betray our responsibility to prepare students for the challenges in an increasingly competitive economy.
The legislative remedy is not a complicated one — a high quality graduation assessment that measures college and career readiness and maintains New Jersey’s place as an academic leader. We need to act quickly to end chaos and give students, parents and employers reassurance that a graduation diploma means something.
Shelley Skinner is the executive director of Better Education for Kids (B4K), an education advocacy organization founded in 2011 to be an independent voice for common-sense education reform in New Jersey.
Patricia Morgan is a former special education teacher and currently the executive director of JerseyCAN, a statewide education advocacy group dedicated to ensuring all kids have the opportunity to attend great schools.