TRENTON – The graduation exam being taken this week by New Jersey high school juniors wouldn’t actually be a requirement to graduate in 2023, under a bill advancing in the Legislature.

A month after the State Board of Education set the score for passing the exam at a level higher than had been recommended, the Assembly Education Committee last week approved a bill that would make it a field test only that can’t be used to decide if students in the Class of 2023 qualify for a diploma.

As originally drafted, the bill (A3196) was going to overrule the Board of Education and require the cut score to be set at 725, rather than 750. It was rewritten to not touch the cut score but instead to remove the stakes.

Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, D-Essex, said kids are grappling with anxiety, depression and learning loss after two devastating years of the pandemic. He said it’s the worst time for a new graduation test with a higher bar to pass.

“Insensitive, almost to the point of educational malpractice, to mandate a test of this type for use for graduation right after we came out of this pandemic,” Caputo said.

“Just because we can take off our masks and go back to school or work doesn’t mean that everything’s back to normal,” said Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, D-Essex. “It’s not. It is really not back to normal.”

Assemblywoman Pam Lampitt, D-Camden, said if the new cut scores for the New Jersey Graduation Proficiency Assessment were applied to the previous test on which it’s based, the New Jersey Student Learning Assessment, 46% would have passed the English portion and 35% the Algebra 1 portion.

“Even if the score was not raised to 750, I believe that all of us would still be sitting here talking about: Why are we doing this? Why are we doing this exit exam?” Lampitt said.

None of the people who spoke at the Assembly Education Committee hearing where the bill was unanimously advanced were opposed, though a representative for the New Jersey Business and Industry Association expressed general support for high standards.

Julie Borst, executive director of Save Our Schools NJ, said the exit test should be dropped altogether as only 11 states have one. She said that in emerging from the pandemic, efforts should be made to take things off the plate of students and teachers.

“What we came back to was more standardized testing than we have ever seen, ever,” Borst said. “This is not jiving with the message that we’re concerned about mental health when really all you’re saying is, ‘I’m only concerned about how you do on a standardized test.’ And it becomes punitive whether you intended it to be or not.”

The New Jersey Education Association also supports eliminating the exit exam.

“Since March of 2020, student learning has been interrupted and disrupted, and right now the most important thing we can do for students is not stress them with a high-stakes test,” said Francine Pfeffer, an associate director of government relations for the NJEA.

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Debra Bradley, director of government relations for the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, said good testing provides for multiple years of field testing but that for the NJGPA, the field testing is being done as part of the first administration of the exam, which also includes questions from the previous NJSLA.

“And as a result, we don’t think it should be used for the Class of 2023 for that purpose,” Bradley said. “And potentially for the Class of 2024 if we don’t get the work done in time.”

Michael Symons is the Statehouse bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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