Almost Half Of Camden, N.J. Students Graduate On Appeal : NPR Ed Multiple pathways to graduation: lifeline, or loophole?

Almost Half Of Camden, N.J. Students Graduate On Appeal

The U.S. high school graduation rate is at an all-time high. But why? NPR Ed partnered with 14 member stations around the country to bring you the stories behind that number. Check out the whole story here. And find out what's happening in your state.

Francheska Lassalle is already looking for her high school graduation outfit. She wants a light blue dress to wear under her orange cap and gown.

"I'm going to wear heels," the 18-year-old said. "I'm going to get my hair done, makeup, nails, eyebrows, everything."

But Francheska doesn't know yet whether she's graduating.

The senior at Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden, New Jersey failed the state's mandatory high school exit exam and the alternative exit exam, which is untimed and easier, a total of four times.

"I knew I wasn't going to pass," Francheska said. "I tried my best. I understood some parts but some of the parts I didn't understand." Francheska, who spent most of her life in Puerto Rico, struggles with English.

Last year, 48 percent of seniors in the district couldn't pass either of the two tests. But they earned their diploma anyway by submitting an appeal to the state. Throughout New Jersey, 1,400 seniors graduated through an appeals process.

The Appeals Process

New Jersey created its appeals process in 2010 when the state introduced the current alternative high school graduation exam, which is more rigorous than the previous test.

Close to 2,000 seniors failed. Instead of telling them at the last minute that they wouldn't graduate, the state began allowing students to appeal the graduation requirements by submitting samples of their classwork.

Valid samples include a single graded algebra problem, or a persuasive essay with a teacher's comments in the margins.

Francheska wrote a six-page paper about her hometown of Aguada, Puerto Rico.

"The places, the food, music," she said.

Her first attempt wasn't strong enough. Her teacher asked her to make changes before submitting a second version as part of her appeal. She was able to redo the reading questions and each math problem until she earned a good grade.

"I did everything perfect," she said. "But I'm a little bit nervous, too."

She's worried the state will reject her appeal. But according to guidance counselor Fonda Davis, not a single student at the school has been denied an appeal in the past few years.

Some argue that providing multiple pathways to graduation are a lifeline for students, not a loophole.

Superintendent of Schools Paymon Rouhanifard says education standards have been low in the district for too long, but that holding back half the senior class because they can't pass a test should not be an option.

In Camden, 95 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and about one in three residents are under the age of 18.

"In a city where so many young people live here, and that has really suffered from the impact of poverty, we need more of our students to have those better life opportunities," Rouhanifard said.