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N.J. Plans More Rigorous Competency Testing; New Graduation Standards To Be Determined

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Trenton, NJ--The New Jersey Board of Education gave the go-ahead last week to an extensive re-scaling of the statewide testing program for public-school students.

In essence, the state board upgraded its high-school graduation standards while abandoning its five-year-old Minimum Basic Skills (mbs) test, which had been criticized as being too easy.

Beginning with the graduating class of 1989, New Jersey high-school students will not earn diplomas unless they can pass an examination designed to be far more rigorous than the current mbs test.

The board also voted to instruct the state's 586 local school districts to administer one of several commercial standardized tests--or to create their own tests--for students at the third- and sixth-grade levels. Annual results will be sent to the state department of education for analysis and publication.

Similar Actions

New Jersey approved its mbs test, given in grades 3, 6, 9, and 11, in 1978, during a wave of similar actions by states across the nation. In all, according to Education Commissioner Saul Cooperman, 39 states currently administer some form of minimum-competency test.

However, New Jersey's test came under fire during the 1981 gubernatorial campaign because approximately 90 percent of the more than 300,000 annual test takers were meeting or exceeding statewide standards.

When Thomas H. Kean was elected governor a year ago, he pledged to work towards eliminating the test. That vow is now being carried out by Mr. Cooperman, whom Mr. Kean appointed last summer.

The new diploma test, not yet developed, will "raise the bar to what I would call an appropriate level," Mr. Cooperman told the state board.

It will measure a student's ability "to function in society, ... to become a productive worker in our society," he added. "[It is] not [for] minimal survival."

The new test--covering reading, writing, and mathematics--will be given at the ninth-grade level beginning in March 1984, but it will not be used to determine high-school graduation eligibility until 1986. Those ninth graders who fail the test in 1986 will have three additional chances to pass, after receiving remedial help during succeeding school years.

Students scheduled to graduate between 1985 and 1989 must still pass the ninth-grade mbs test to receive diplomas, under the terms of the state law passed three years ago.

Failure and Dropout Rates

Mr. Cooperman acknowledged that the tougher test could result in an increase in failure and dropout rates in both suburban and urban school districts. But he said, "Darn it, you've got to say what is necessary, what is proper, what people have got to do to be able to more than survive."

The new system of local test selection at the elementary-school level provides a testing procedure that is cheaper to administer than the current one, but one that will continue to come under state scrutiny, Mr. Cooperman said.

At this point, according to the commissioner, all but three of the state's 586 school districts already employ one of five standardized commercial tests.

Later this year, staff members of the state education department will recalculate upward the minimum score students must earn in order to pass.

Results of these tests will serve as an "early warning system" to identi-fy students who may need remedial help to pass the graduation test in the ninth grade.

The only direct opposition to the new program came from a spokesman for Schoolwatch, a nonprofit coalition of state, civic, and business organizations.

Paul Tractenberg, a Schoolwatch board member, expressed concern that inner-city schools would be forced to step up their remedial programs despite their inability to pay for such measures.

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