By Briana Vannozzi
Last February, parents in Paterson received an unwelcome graduation announcement: 700 students wouldn’t be eligible for a diploma come June.
“It was because they hadn’t passed the PARCC, they hadn’t passed any of the other alternate assessments and we started raising the issue in Paterson,” said Paterson Education Fund Executive Director Rosie Grant.
Grant and several other civil rights and advocacy groups have joined a legal challenge against PARCC, claiming the state’s new high school graduation requirements, which include passing the controversial standardized test, violate state law.
“These new rules contradict the law about high school graduation that was put in place by the Legislature and gives important rights to students,” said Education Law Center Staff Attorney Jessica Levin.
That law, passed in 1979, requires an 11th grade English and math test. PARCC is administered in the 10th. It also requires retesting opportunities.
“If they had been fully in effect last year, tens of thousands of students in the class of 2016 wouldn’t have passed. About half the class 50,000 to 60,000 didn’t pass PARCC, putting them at risk of not receiving a high school diploma so there’s also very serious policy issues,” Levin said.
The Education Law Center joined with the ACLU to file the suit on behalf of the advocacy groups.
“Another major problem with the rules is that they use fee-based substitute competency tests as an alternative to the PARCC exam and these tests will limit access for low income students in New Jersey,” Levin said.
“We fear that our kids will be at a disadvantage. They’re already at risk. We’re in an area that’s concentrated poverty and they can’t afford the alternate assessments,” Grant said.
Fee-based tests like the SAT and ACT can be used as a “substitute competency test” but only until 2020. The groups argue it restricts low-income, minority students. Many are English language learners.
“New Jersey has one of the highest graduation rates in the U.S.: 89 percent of students graduate. When you get to Hispanic students, it goes down to 82 percent and when you get down to English language learners — those whose English is not their first language — it goes down to 74 percent so the number drops and it’s that group of people in the 72 to 74 percent that are most vulnerable and the most impacted by this change,” said Latino Action Network Executive Vice President Christian Estevez.
And Estevez says PARCC limits test taking in other languages.
“Our concern is that this English only approach that the state is taking is going to basically throw thousands of Latino students and other English language learners out of the education pipeline,” he said.
The state Department of Education says it doesn’t comment on pending legal cases. Members have said they expect PARCC scores to improve with each year, arguing it’s a better measure of college readiness and skill, especially as the number of students in need of remedial work before beginning college courses continues to grow.