Letter to the State Board of Education Re: NJGPA Cut Scores

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May 1, 2023 

President Kathy Goldenberg 

Vice President Andrew J. Mulvihill 

Past President Arcelio Aponte 

Board Member Mary Beth Berry 

Board Member Elaine Bobrove 

Board Member Fatimah Burnam-Watkins 

Board Member Ronald K. Butcher 

Board Member Jack Fornaro 

Board Member Mary Elizabeth Gazi 

Board Member Nedd James Johnson, Ed. D. 

Board Member Joseph Ricca, Jr., Ed.D. 

Board Member Sylvia Sylvia-Cioffi 

Dear Honorable NJ State Board of Education Members: 

Thank you for the opportunity to share the perspectives and recommendations of the statewide membership of the NJ Principals and Supervisors Association (NJPSA) on the issue of setting the appropriate cut score for the New Jersey Graduation Proficiency Assessment (NJGPA). My 

name is Jennie Lamon, and I am the Assistant Director of Government Relations for the NJPSA. We are writing to you today on behalf of our statewide membership to respectfully request that you vote in support of establishing the NJGPA cut score at the 725 mark when this matter is before you on May 3rd. We believe that the 725 cut score is a fair standard for our state’s high school graduation assessment today. 

We further request that the cut scores for the alternate pathway assessments be set to represent the results of the alignment study to the NJGPA 725 cut score. The data presented by the New Jersey Department of Education to the State Board at the April meeting demonstrates that a 750 cut score both lowered passing rates on the alternative assessments and increased the probability that significantly more students will graduate through the portfolio appeals process. Not only will this place a high stakes burden on students already suffering negative impacts from the pandemic, the portfolio process will increase that burden by taking away potential career and vocational opportunities and long-awaited elective choices in the senior year. Our students have already given up too much in their learning options as a result of the pandemic. 

This Board has heard strong evidence of significant and widespread impacts of the pandemic on student learning, student mental health, staff mental health, staffing shortages and the need

for robust supplemental supports to assist students in their learning. The State Board cannot responsibly ignore this context when it comes to core actions such as setting cut scores on high impact assessments such as our high school graduation exit assessment. Maintaining a cut score of 750, when the psychometricians, New Jersey Department of Education, and the test vendors all recommended 725 from the outset, and the field test results of last year show that more than half the students would have failed with a cut score of 750, is simply not justifiable. The results from the field test show that the 750 level doubled failure rates on the English Language Arts portion of the test. On the other hand, eighty percent of students would have passed if the 725 cut score had been adopted. Only 39% passed at 750. On the math portion, the Board’s higher cut score reduced passing rates from 56.5% to 50%. 

There are several reasons that setting our graduation requirements at the 725-cut score is the prudent choice including our students’ demonstration of high school proficiency levels through coursework, our credit structures and other important measures. Ignoring these factors and relying on a cut score that even the experts did not recommend in a context of widespread issues of student mental health and wellness in schools is simply not putting our students’ needs first. Additionally, we urge you to consider the realities of our schools’ delivery systems at present. Establishing a cut score that will over-rely on the use of portfolio assessments will not only deprive students of elective choices, potential vocational career paths, and dual enrollment options, but will also create significant scheduling impacts and exacerbate already dire staffing shortages. 

Impact on Student Wellness 

Last year’s field test of the NJGPA provided us with a glimpse of what the effect of retaining the 750 cut score will have on student mental health and wellness. There are significant emotional concerns for some students, especially for those students who have never missed a target previously. 

Students suffering from test anxiety typically perform poorly on assessments due to the intense anxiety and stress that they feel when taking them. Despite this genuine phobia, our response is to require these students to take multiple tests, or forfeit options for other valued and meaningful learning experiences. 

A failure to achieve the 750 cut score is estimated to lead to as many as 62,000 portfolio appeals for the class of 2024. 

  • To be clear, the only way to navigate the portfolio process is to overhaul a student’s schedule to make the student available at the time when the portfolio work will be done. Additionally, this does not mean the student comes out of the most convenient course (study hall or an elective), it means that portfolio work is done during the period when the teacher(s) can be scheduled to do the work, and the student is moved into that section, often resulting in a complete change to the student’s entire schedule, including when classes are being taken and moving to sections taught by completely different teachers.

That is devastating to a student’s routine, interpersonal connections, and psyche at the eleventh hour of their high school career. 

  • This also means exclusion of some students to participate in programs such as Career and Technical Education and School-to-Work programs, dual enrollment programs or an elective that a student has waited all of his or her high school career to be able to take due to a particular interest or potential career path. For example, some high schools offer a Health Sciences elective that is only open to seniors. A student who wishes to become a veterinary technician might have her heart set on taking that class. But if she gets a 740 on the math portion of the NJGPA, she may have to forfeit that Health Sciences elective in order to take a portfolio remediation class. It is crucial to understand the serious consequences that retaining an inappropriately inflated level of 750 could have on our students’ futures and morale. 
  • In another scheduling scenario, it might seem as simple as a student having to forgo a study hall. But to that student, who is working a job after school to help his/her economically disadvantaged family, that study hall is the critical time he/she needs to get their schoolwork done. These examples demonstrate the need to pause and consider how much is on the line with your vote on the high school exit exam cut scores, particularly when we know that students are demonstrating proficiency for high school graduation in a myriad of other ways. 

Our schools are still reeling from the impact of the Covid-19 Public Health Emergency. Students who have already experienced so much loss as a disruption to their academic careers caused by the pandemic, now stand to lose more opportunities. Setting an arbitrary cut score level of 750 that directly conflicts with the recommendations of all of the educational professionals and psychometricians who do this work daily is not only NOT student friendly, but it sends the message to students that the State Board of Education is unaware of or insensitive to their realities and personal goals. 

Impact on Districts: Scheduling and Staffing Shortages 

The NJDOE also projects that if the State Board retains the 750 cut score, the class of 2024 could generate a staggering number of portfolio appeals. It estimates that 40,000 students will have to complete portfolio appeals for English Language Arts and 22,000 for math. Scheduling additional portfolio appeals courses is an increased burden to districts. The higher number of students who are graduating via the portfolio process, the more classes must be built into the schedule to accommodate those students. Those classes need teachers. This often means the cancellation of other courses and electives to pull teachers to teach portfolio classes. Thus, this will impact the breadth of courses available to the entire student body in our high schools. 

Portfolio appeals are a time-consuming process consisting of an inordinate amount of paperwork. Support for the portfolio process requires a sustained time commitment from teachers, principals, guidance counselors, and secretarial staff. There is an enormous pressure

on an already overloaded staff to complete and file the paperwork for each portfolio appeal, and to complete appeals early to ensure student participation in commencement activities. 

Conclusion and Recommendation 

We know that students learn differently and can effectively demonstrate knowledge and proficiency for high school graduation in numerous ways that are all governed by the New Jersey Student Learning Standards (NJSLS). Students must pass specific classes; earn a state mandated number of credits in state mandated courses; and meet statewide attendance, physical education, and behavioral requirements in order to be eligible for high school graduation. All of these approaches build in multiple measures, balance, and the principle of fairness to students. 

We believe the same approach should be applied to setting the cut score to the additional requirement of the NJGPA. 

In 2022, the State Legislature weighed in on the issue of fairness to students by mandating that the administration of the NJGPA to the Class of 2023 be a field test for several reasons, including the fact that the NJGPA had not been field tested despite professional testing protocols, principles of basic fairness to students, the high stakes context of graduation, and the impact of the pandemic on students. At that time, this Board requested a data analysis on the impact of a NJGPA cut score of 750 versus a cut score of 725. Now that the data has been aggregated, it is inappropriate, and a disservice to students, to ignore the data, particularly in light of the other indicators that students have met the bar set by the state. 

NJPSA believes in student assessment as part of our system of instruction. Assessment helps us promote student progress in learning, improve instructional practice, and assess our instructional systems. New Jersey has a strong assessment system in place – well beyond that in many states. However, the system must be a fair one to students, it must be relevant to students, and it must promote student growth opportunities, not restrict them. We also cannot talk in one moment about students’ mental health and wellness being at all-time risk levels and, in the next breath, say that we are going to raise graduation assessments standards ABOVE where they were in pre-COVID times, directly in conflict with the recommendations of the experts. The State Board of Education has a leadership role to play in what has sadly become a constantly changing standard for our students to graduate and be successful. Please stop the roller coaster, set the rational and recommended cut score of 725, and allow our students and schools to continue on their pathway to a successful future. 

Thank you for the opportunity to share our perspectives on this important issue. We stand by ready and available to discuss this matter in further detail with you at any time. 

Respectfully submitted, 

Jennie M. Lamon, J.D. 

New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association

Assistant Director of Government Relations