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NJ Lawmakers Want to Revamp 40-Year-Old Graduation Exam Rule for HS Juniors

Two bills advanced at a June 20 senate hearing that would make long-sought changes to a statute requiring 11th graders to take exams to graduate

Gov. Phil Murphy waived the graduation test requirement in the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Daniella Heminghaus/New Jersey Monitor)

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Lawmakers are on the brink of finally making long-sought changes to a 40-year-old statute requiring 11th graders to take exams in order to graduate from high school. 

During a June 20 Senate Education Committee hearing, senators moved two bills aimed at revamping the requirement. The first (A3196) would halt the use of the test as a graduation prerequisite for the class of 2023 and use test results to study learning loss instead, while another measure (S50) would direct the Department of Education to find an alternative to the test starting with the class of 2026. 

“We’re aiming to now redirect the challenge and the responsibility to the Department of Education to come up with a comprehensive solution so that we can eradicate and change the statute once and for all,” said Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), sponsor of the second bill. “I’m just trying to have a remedied, long-term solution.”

Unlike most states, New Jersey’s high school juniors are required to take a test to graduate. Failing the test does not mean they won’t graduate, since other assessments and portfolios are taken into consideration. 

Gov. Phil Murphy waived the graduation test requirement in the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years due to the coronavirus pandemic. He campaigned in 2017 on eliminating the requirement, saying the state puts too much emphasis on the results of a single test, but a bill making that change permanent hasn’t passed the Legislature. 

The bill aimed at the graduating class of 2023, sponsored by Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), would remove the graduation prerequisite and treat the exam as a “field test” instead. Supporters of the bill say this would allow schools to study the extent and severity of learning loss and develop graduation assessments for the future that are rigorous, realistic, and achievable.

At the hearing, Turner underscored the burden the test puts on students, particularly those from urban or low-income communities. Thousands of students didn’t have laptops or internet connectivity in the first months of the pandemic, excluding them from remote learning. A Rutgers study found lower-income school districts experienced higher inequities in online learning compared to middle- and high-income districts. 

“They are the ones who are going to be suffering the most, not just this year, but in years to come. This country will be affected for years to come because this is not over,” Turner said. “We’re going to see this occur down the road because these kids lost so much during the last couple of years.” 

Ruiz introduced her bill earlier in June. On June 20, she emphasized the importance of seeking a long-term solution after legislators have “kicked the can down the road.” Lawmakers have tried multiple times in recent years to devise a new graduation exam.

Her measure would amend the current law to eliminate the requirement that the test be given in the 11th grade and require state education officials to write a new exam to test students’ proficiency in reading, writing, and math. 

For students in the classes of 2026 and after, the new graduation proficiency test would be developed by the education commissioner and approved by the state Board of Education. The commissioner would also be mandated to collaborate with school officials and other stakeholders on creating the new exam. 

The process to develop the test would begin 60 days after the bill is signed into law. 

Supporters of the bill argue students are already taking several tests in 11th grade — PSAT, ACT, SAT, AP tests — on top of deciding what to do after graduation. 

Debbie Bradley of the School Principals Association called Ruiz’s bill a “solid step forward in the roller coaster ride of state assessment requirements.”

Turner and Ruiz both agreed that while they want the current requirement to change, some form of benchmark testing still needs to be part of the education system so school officials can analyze data on teachers and students. 

Some education groups opposed Ruiz’s bill because it would still mandate testing as a requirement for high school graduation. Sharon Krengel of the Education Law Center pointed to studies showing tests can increase dropout and incarceration rates without improving college participation.

“We’ve all been talking about Band-Aids, basically, for students who have undergone a lot of mental, academic, emotional turmoil in the last few years. It’s just time to get rid of the graduation test altogether and go with credits … that these students have put forward during their high school career,” she said.

Ruiz said while she knows the majority of states don’t require testing, the top three states for education give tests, and New Jersey is “included in that mix.”

“There’s something to be said about balance, about balance, about moving forward collectively and doing that so we can put this discussion at bay, to end, because it’s been going on for four years now,” she added.

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