Almost a third of the 70 seniors who graduated from Wildwood High School last June did so without having to pass the state graduation test. All have some type of disability that exempted them from passing the test, but did not prevent them from graduating and receiving the same diploma as all other students.

In 29 New Jersey high schools, more than 20 percent of the entire senior class graduated without passing a state test, according to a Press of Atlantic City review of state report card data. Those high schools include Atlantic City, Middle Township, Wildwood, Bridgeton and Millville.

In some — mostly urban — school districts, almost every student with a 2009, more than 7,500 high school graduates took the state test, but did not have to pass it under the terms of their Individual Education Plan, or IEP.  They made up 8 percent of all graduates, up from 6 percent in 2001.

State Department of Education officials said the decision to exempt a student is made at the local school level, by the district child-study team. But they, and others, said exempting almost every disabled student is questionable. They said having a disability should not automatically exclude a student from passing either the state HSPA or the alternative Special Review Assessment. DOE Assistant Commissioner Barbara Gantwerk said the purpose of an the Individual Education Plan, or IEP, is to give students with disabilities the assistance they need to meet state standards and pass the test.

“It would be questionable to have almost every student exempt,” she said.

State DOE Director of Assessment Tim Peters said it should be almost impossible, since not all disabilities affect a student’s ability to learn. But, he said, he has reviewed schools where it is justified.

While almost all students with disablities are required to take the test, statewide in 2009 more than 7,500 high school graduates were not required to pass it under the terms of their IEPs. They made up 8 percent of all graduates, up from 6 percent in 2001.

Student advocates worry that districts may be reinforcing low expectations for disabled students and misleading future employers who take the diploma at face value. New proposed national education standards call for holding special education students to the same academic expectations as regular students, with added support.

“Students should not be exempted from passing just because it’s assumed they are not going to pass,” said Diana Autin, co-director of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, which works with families of children with disabilities. “It is troubling that students graduate without the skills they need to make their way in the world.”

Effects of poverty

Local school officials said they don’t automatically exempt every student, and are taking steps to reduce the number with more intensive in-class support. Since all cases are reviewed individually, the number of students exempted each year will vary. They said they are trying to balance the demands of the state and federal No Child Left Behind Act with the disabilities of their students who often have the added disadvantage of coming from poor families with less access to health care and other services that could help their children succeed.

“These are children whose mothers often did not get pre-natal care,” said H. Victor Gilson, Bridgeton school superintendent. “They have had problems from birth. They move around a lot so their care is not consistent. It all starts with the poverty.”

Atlantic City Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Donna Haye said the city has both poverty and a high rate of immigrant students, many of whom come from countries where they have not attended school on a regular basis.

If the students are young, she said, extra support will help them catch up. But by high school, overcoming a learning disability, while also learning English and academic subjects, is a huge challenge.

“We are trying to reduce the number of students who are exempt,” Haye said. “We have had some students get within a few points of passing the HSPA. But we have so many under-schooled students.”

Jean McCarthy, director of the child study team in Wildwood, said sometimes student IEPs allow them to be exempt from passing just one section of the test.

“Most have a reading disability,” she said. “And while we can read the directions for them, we cannot do the actual reading for them on the language arts test.”

Statewide, of the juniors who took the HSPA in 2008, 22 percent of the exempted students did pass the language art section of the test, and 15 percent passed the math test, state data show.

McCarthy said the decision to exempt is not done lightly, and they are always aware that the decision to not exempt could deny students the chance to graduate.

“I want high expectations for all students,” she said. “But it is just not plausible that 100 percent will pass the test.”

Richard Shain, director of special education services in the Millville school district, said the heart of the issue is a political dilemma — how to raise academic standards and expect all students to meet them, while acknowledging that some will struggle and even fail.

“Can you really make a student who is reading on a second-grade level pass the test to graduate?” he said. “Some students have made a great effort to get where they are.”

Paths to graduation

New Jersey has tried to accommodate disabilities with multiple testing paths to graduation.

The standard is the HSPA. In 2009, 77,079 of seniors passed the test to graduate, about 80 percent of the class statewide.

Regular students who could not pass the HSPA have gotten a second chance through the Special Review Assessment (now called Alternative High School Assessment), a series of smaller tests the state revised amid years of criticism that it offered students too easy a “back door” to graduation. The number of students graduating through the SRA has dropped from almost 15 percent in 2004 to about 11 percent in 2009, or 10,707 students.

Special-education students can be required to pass the state test or be exempted. Last year, 7,529 special-education students who graduated were exempt from passing the HSPA, representing about 45 percent of all students with disabilities. The rest passed the HSPA or the SRA.

 Finally, a small number of severely disabled students, about 550 per year, take an Alternate Proficiency Assessment, or APA, which measures their ability to meet individual goals outlined in their IEPs.

Stan Karp, director of the Education Law Center Secondary Reform Project, said the increase in the “exempt” group may be a result of the No Child Left Behind law requirement that states test almost every student. In the past, he said, schools just exempted more disabled students from even taking the test.

“It is encouraging if it means that schools are at least holding on to more of these students to graduation,” he said. “But certainly an IEP should not equate to an automatic exemption. The IEP should address what are the options for these students once they graduate.”

Autin said while the SRA process has been controversial, she would rather see more students graduate through that process than be exempt. Pleasantville, for example, had no students graduate exempt in 2009, but almost 45 percent of the entire class graduated through the SRA process.

Autin said more students with disabilities have been taking and passing the state test, but progress seems to have hit a plateau, especially in urban districts.

“Expectations are higher for students with disabilities than they used to be,” Autin said. “But they are still not very high.”

Some districts have made progress. Jack Phizenmayer, superintendent of the Lower Cape May Regional School District, credited their efforts and expectations starting in middle school for helping students pass the test. Almost 25 percent of students at the high school have a disability, but just 7 percent of the seniors graduated exempt from passing the HSPA in 2009 according to the school’s state report card.

Some states give certificates of completion rather than diplomas to students who do not meet all state graduation requirements. New Jersey officials have discussed the issue, but still offer just one diploma.

Middle Township Director of Special Education David Salvo said the state needs a better testing system that would allow more disabled students to demonstrate their skills, such as a portfolio that would track their progress over time.

“Rather than exempt these students, they should find a better way to assess them that tracks their actual learning rather than their ability to take a test,” he said.

Contact Diane D’Amico:

609-272-7241