TRENTON – The new graduation assessment New Jersey 11th graders will take next month will be tougher to pass than originally recommended.

The State Board of Education set the cut score for the New Jersey Graduation Proficiency Assessment at 750 for both its English and math exams – identical to New Jersey Student Learning Assessment that it is replacing, though higher than the 725 recommended by the state Department of Education.

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The state board bucked the department and its outside psychometricians after a push from Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, who until January was the longtime head of the Senate Education Committee. She told the board that “725 is just way too low.”

“It makes me cringe,” Ruiz said. “725 for me I think takes New Jersey, lowers our standards.”

New test, familiar questions

The test covers end-of-course knowledge from grades 8, 9 and 10. A passing score represents that a student is approaching graduation readiness. It’s not clear how many more questions a student will have to get correct to pass, before the test results are converted onto a scale of 650 to 850.

“To say to kids, to say to parents, to say that ‘partially meets expectations’ is what we want for you is wrong,” said board member Mary Beth Berry. “I think 750 certainly seems like something that we could start with, and then we can reassess.”

The GPA itself hasn’t been field-tested, though its individual items have as the SLA, the successor to the PARCC test, said Gilbert Gonzalez, acting assistant education commissioner for the Division of Teaching and Learning Services.

In a nod to the uncertainty posed by the new test, the board had intended to revisit the 725 cut score after one year to see if the data from its first administration merited its adjustment. It plans to do the same with the 750 cut score.

First do no harm

A handful of board members said the board shouldn’t have substituted its opinion for that of experts who reached their conclusions with data – particularly considering that this is the third school year in which students’ academic experience has been upended by the pandemic.

“If we go high and decide it was too high and then go back to a lower number, the question is: How many children did we hurt in that process?” said board member Ronald Butcher.

“It’s something we’ve been discussing repeatedly, and I still haven’t heard anything different other than, ‘I feel, I think or I believe,’” said board member Nedd Johnson. “I used to work for a superintendent who told us that ‘in God we trust, and everybody else bring data.’”

“It is important to be guided, especially when we’re discussing the subject of cut scores, by data – and not by emotion or past experience or hyperbole,” said board member Joseph Ricca.

'Too many kids graduated?'

Board vice president Andrew Mulvihill said the higher cut score is needed because too many students need remedial courses when they get to college. He said it’s better to aim high to start.

“It’s easier to lower something than it is to raise it,” Mulvihill said. “I do not think in a year from now when we look at this again that there will be the political will to raise it. What are we doing to say, too many kids are graduating? I don’t think it will happen.”

Juniors who don’t pass the graduation test next month will have additional chances as seniors. They also can qualify by showing a review committee a portfolio of their high school work.

Average SAT scores for every NJ high school

Average scores for the 2019-2020 school year are listed by county, from highest to lowest.

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