Several civil rights groups and parent advocacy groups in New Jersey have filed a lawsuit aimed at challenging state graduation regulations that require students to pass the PARCC test in order to obtain a high school diploma.

The lawsuit was filed on Oct. 21 in New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, on behalf of several organizations including the Latino Action Network, the Latino Coalition of New Jersey and the Paterson Education Fund. The Education Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey are serving as co-counsel for the case.

In a statement Monday, the ACLU said the PARCC graduation requirements violate the New Jersey graduate statutes and "undermine important protections established by the Legislature, such as eliminating retesting opportunities required by the graduation statute."

“The State Board of Education is going full-steam ahead with a plan that breaks New Jersey law and, more disturbingly, disproportionately harms the most vulnerable students,” ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas said in a statement. “The state knows about the PARCC’s high failure rates, extreme racial disparities, and deep economic divisions in passing scores, and yet officials decided to use this test as a key criterion for graduation despite the glaring problems. The New Jersey Board of Education has put New Jersey students on the wrong course.”

In 1979, the state passed a law requiring a graduation test that included an 11th grade assessment of state standards in English and math. The new rules require students to pass the PARCC ELA10, a 10th grade exam, and the PARCC Algebra I test.

The ACLU claims that "the designation of a 10th grade graduation test deprives English Language Learners of an extra year to develop their language ability." Fee-based tests such as the SAT and ACT can be used as "substitute competency tests" until 2020, but the plaintiffs say this will restrict low-income students who need those exams to obtain a diploma.

"Because NJ’s at-risk students are more likely to be members of racial minority groups or ELLs, use of fee-based assessments will have a negative, disparate impact on these student groups, a violation of their civil rights," the ACLU said, adding that the substitute assessments also do not align with state standards and are not 11th grade tests.

The lawsuit alleges the provisions "violate the state constitution’s Education Clause and state anti-discrimination law."

The new state rules indicate that students who took the PARCC tests, but did not pass, can submit portfolio appeals to the state in order to get a diploma. At the end of the last school year, the NJ Department of Education has received more than 10,000 portfolio appeals from high school seniors throughout the state.

The portfolio appeal process allows educators to review a student’s entire body of work, rather than their performance on standardized assessments such as PARCC, in order to determine graduation eligibility. Prior to the introduction of the PARCC - Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers exam - school districts throughout the state submitted portfolio appeals for about 2,000 students annually, according to the Department of Education.

The ACLU alleged that if the new rules had been in effect in 2016, more than half of the senior class — 50,000-60,000 students — would have been at risk of not graduating. In 2015, the passing rate on the PARCC ELA10 was 37 percent and on the PARCC Algebra I it was 36 percent. In 2016, the passing rate on the PARCC ELA10 was 44 percent and 41 percent on the PARCC Algebra 1 exam, the ACLU said, adding that the passing rate was above 90 percent on the High School Proficiency Assessment, which was previously required for graduation.

“NJ has sustained one of the highest graduation rates in the country, in part because we’ve always had multiple ways for students to earn a high school diploma. We want to make sure students continue to have multiple opportunities to succeed,” PEF’s Executive Director Rosie Grant said.

The lawsuit also alleges that preparing the portfolio appeals also placed an additional burden on school staff members and students.

"The decision to tie high school diplomas to specific test scores is a state policy decision, not a federal mandate," The ACLU statement reads. "Many states continue to give tests for diagnostic and accountability purposes without using the scores to make graduation decisions for individual students. A bill now pending in the NJ Legislature (S2147/A3849) would allow for that alternative."

Stan Karp, Director of ELC’s Secondary Reform Project, said state lawmakers need to reconsider graduation testing policies.

“Until then," he said, "this lawsuit seeks to safeguard the rights of students and families, particularly in high need districts and schools.”

Toniann Antonelli is a social content producer for NJ 101.5. She can be reached at, or on Twitter @ToniRadio1015.

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