There is little public data on how many high school seniors do not graduate solely because they have not passed the existing state tests in language arts and math.

As the state Department of Education moves toward requiring a new, more challenging high school graduation test in 2014-15, advocates say the data are important to know because virtually all public school students entering their sophomore year in September will take the new online tests in their junior year. If those tests are more challenging, as expected, even more students may be at risk of not graduating.

The department denied an Open Public Records Act request by The Press of Atlantic City for the number of students who had failed to pass either the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) or the Alternate High School Assessment (AHSA) since 2009-10, saying the state does not maintain the data in the manner requested. The Press requested the simple total statewide.

Data were provided, however, by the department showing that in 2012, the most recent year for which complete data are available, it received 1,673 appeals on behalf of seniors who did not pass at least one of the two sections of the HSPA. Only 58 appeals were rejected, but more students may have failed the tests and simply did not file an appeal.

Stan Karp, director of the Secondary Reform Project at the Education Law Center, said the AHSA and the appeals process have helped keep New Jersey’s graduation rate high. The statewide graduation rate was 86 percent in 2012, one of the highest in the nation.

But Karp is concerned about what could happen when the new exams begin. He said 10,000 to 15,000 students use the AHSA to meet state standards and graduate each year, including as many as two-thirds of all students for whom English is not their native language.

Statewide data from 2012 show that almost 60 percent of limited English-speaking high school juniors failed the HSPA math test and 53 percent failed the language arts test that year, which automatically places them in the AHSA process. In low-income districts, 68 percent of limited-English students failed math and 66 percent failed language arts.

Twenty-five high schools, all in urban areas, had more than half of their students graduate in 2012 through the AHSA process, according to the state school performance data. But there is no data on how many did not pass and did not graduate.

“They have really made these kids invisible at a time when we are anticipating major changes in the testing process,” Karp said. “It's important to keep this pathway to a diploma open as the state revises its assessment system.”

State Department of Education spokesman Richard Vespucci said it was premature to provide details, but the department is working on the best way to handle students who fail one or more of the new PARCC Assessments. New Jersey is a member of the national Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, which is designing the new assessments, but each state determines what it will do about students who fail.

The current appeals process is time-consuming for both the districts and the state.

Vespucci said the NJDOE keeps on standby a staff of about 20 employees who, in the last week in May, begin poring over appeals as they come in. The appeals are accompanied by a portfolio of student work that is supposed to demonstrate that they have the required knowledge and skills.

The staff members work exclusively on the appeals, contacting the students’ schools when necessary to ensure that the appeals are complete and that enough information was submitted to show that the students have the required knowledge and skills. A file is completed for each individual student. A subgroup of the staff also meets to discuss appeals for which there is no consensus on whether they should be approved.

The appeals process grew out of the AHSA alternate test first used in 2010. That year, data were released showing about 4,500 students statewide — including several hundred students in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties — were at risk of not graduating because they had not passed both the math and language arts versions of either test. The state then instituted the appeals process, which reduced the number of students not graduating to about 3,000.

But no annual public reports have been issued since. The new state school performance reports include data only on what percentage of students graduated by passing either the HSPA or AHSA. The only clue that some students may not have graduated because of the test is that the state now includes a five-year graduation rate on the reports, which would include students who failed to graduate in four years and returned to finish. But the reason they did not graduate is not included, and some may have failed to complete other graduation requirements.

The Press of Atlantic City contacted local school officials about this year’s graduating class. Some said they did file appeals this year on behalf of students who were at risk of not graduating solely because of their state test results.

A vice principal at Millville High School stayed late one night just before graduation, waiting to hear whether five appeals would be granted so the students could graduate.

“It was such a huge relief,” Principal Kathleen Procopio said when they got the word that all could receive their diplomas.

Egg Harbor Township filed one appeal, which was granted. Greater Egg Harbor Regional required no appeals this year at any of its three high schools, Absegami, Oakcrest and Cedar Creek.

Pleasantville, which had the largest number of students who did not pass the tests in 2010, did not respond.

Atlantic City Superintendent Donna Haye said the district had about a half-dozen approvals in the first wave of appeals but still has an additional seven or eight that were filed in June. She is also waiting for results of the final AHSA testing in June for an additional half-dozen students. She said the results for those students could mean the difference between the district meeting or not meeting its state performance goals this year.

“Those students mean a lot to me, but I’m not sure we’ll have results in time to report our graduation rates to the state in August,” Haye said. Atlantic City High School’s graduation rate rose to 70 percent in 2012 but is still far below the state average.

Haye and Wildwood High School Principal Chris Armstrong both said the high number of non-English speaking students who take the alternate tests and the high mobility rate in their districts make it vital to have an alternate test and an appeals process. Both said many students arrive from other countries speaking limited English but are still expected to take the tests. Almost 23 percent of students at Wildwood High School and about 37 percent of students at Atlantic City High School do not speak English as their native language, according to state performance reports.

Armstrong said this year all Wildwood seniors did graduate, but the school has had seniors return for a fifth year solely because they had not passed the test. They attend for a modified day that places them in courses they need to pass the testing process.

He said most students who have passed all their courses are willing to make that extra effort so they can get their diploma, but whether students return for a fifth year usually depends on their age and their goals.

“The students we’re struggling with have only been here a year or two,” Haye said. “Their language is the big issue and they are the ones who need accommodations.”

Students with disabilities are also a concern, though some can be exempted from having to pass the test to graduate. Some districts report more than 10 percent of students graduating were exempt from passing the test.

Teachers are also concerned about the new tests, especially since results will be part of new teacher evaluations.

“There is concern that we are just forging ahead with inadequate regard for the effects,” New Jersey Education Association spokesman Steve Wollmer said.

Contact Diane D’Amico:

609-272-7241

More than 30 years’ experience reporting and editing for newspapers and magazines in Illinois, Colorado, Texas and New Jersey and 1985 winner of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association’s John Murphy Award for copy editing.