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New Jersey's empty diplomas

New Jersey needs to stop handing out empty diplomas to students who were unable to pass the state's required graduation exam.

After flunking the High School Proficiency Assessment as many as three times, thousands of students' graduation status is in limbo. That's shameful. But it's the state's public education system that deserves failing marks.

It has allowed these students to reach their graduation day without being able to meet basic language-arts and math standards.

In previous years, poorly performing students would have been given an easy alternative test that more than 96 percent have passed. The test was a joke.

But the state has changed the alternative exam, and the passing rate has plummeted to a staggering 4 percent. About 10,000 seniors statewide failed on the first round. They took it again and nearly half failed again.

The results do raise questions about the validity of the test that warrant further study by state education officials. But that doesn't mean the test should be ignored.

The content of the exit exams is basically the same, but they were administered differently. This year, the exams were graded in North Carolina, rather than by the students' teachers, which seems to give some weight to charges that the teachers were too lenient on their own students.

While state officials try to figure out what went drastically wrong and how to fix it, as many as 4,500 students are in danger of not graduating this month. There shouldn't be a blanket reprieve.

Some have called for the state to set aside this year's results and make this a pilot year for the new test. That would be a disservice to those students who worked hard and passed the test.

A better option has been offered by the state Department of Education: Let students who failed enroll in summer school and take the test for a third time in August. Those who fail again can then make a personal appeal to the state to award them a diploma anyway, based on their meeting other academic criteria.

Education Secretary Bret Schundler has recommended that districts let students who failed the test participate in graduation ceremonies anyway. But it's time for such charades to end.

No doubt, delaying their graduations will cause angst for parents and seniors. It will also put a wrinkle in the plans of those who intended to enroll in college in the fall. That's unfortunate.

But think of how much more proud they will be when they hold a diploma in their hands that truly isn't just a piece of paper?