When New Jersey's education commissioner made a little noticed change last fall in the way a minimum standards test would be graded, few noticed.
"I just thought it would be smooth like it was for last year's seniors," said Jasmine Tadros, a member of the class of 2010 at Irvington High School.
Days before the final graduation days of the season, a final requirement's proved elusive for Jasmine, 18, and hundreds of other seniors statewide. It's called the Alternative High School Assessment, or AHSA. The test is designed to demonstrate at least minimal proficiency in language arts and math and is taken only by students who failed in three tries to pass a similar exam during the previous year.
"It's not like 20 plus 20, said Jasmine, "it's like a big word problem with like probably 'A,B and C.' And you get like five of 'em and you have to pass all of 'em."
"Because I failed this one part of the test, I feel like I'm taking 20 steps back," said an emotional Aretha Rodney, 17, who is also in Irvington's senior class. Both Jasmine and Aretha have been told they cannot attend graduation Friday and will not receive diplomas until they attend summer school and take the AHSA yet again--and pass it--in August.
The crisis was triggered by the State's decision to move grading of the AHSA from local districts to independent outsiders. The failure rate rocketed from about 400 last year to 10,000 out of 100,000 students who took the test this year.
That shocked Education Commissioner Bret Schundler into declaring that the AHSA requirement could be waived for students who scored above 400 on the SAT or had equivalent results on other national standardized exams. With waivers applied and appeals continuing, the number of students in limbo has dropped to 2200.
But James E. Harris, president of the NJ conference of the NAACP sees unfairness. "These are students who have done everything that's asked of them for years. They simply cannot pass one test that the State misapplied and mishandled," he said.
Aretha Rodney says she's got a 2.3 GPA, has never had to attend summer school before and has been accepted to college. But pending resolution of an appeal, the failed AHSA threatens her immediate future because she can't move on from high school without passing it.
There's also the matter of the ceremony that's tantalyzingly close at hand. "I want to walk across that stage. I want to have that moment like 'yeah mom, I have my diploma in my hands!'--because I've earned it," she said.
NJ Dept. of Ed. spokeswoman Beth Auerswald said that they will offer special training and additional chances for students to take the AHSA.
"The Department of Education has done everything possible to help students pass, while preserving the integrity of a New Jersey diploma," said Auerswald. "We will offer over the summer special remediation programs and another chance to take the AHSA. However, students must show they have mastered basic skills before they graduate."