The June graduation of thousands of students could be at risk after most who took New Jersey's retooled alternative exit exam during the winter failed to pass, according to data obtained by the Education Law Center.

In January, 10,308 students statewide took the math Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA), the test given to students who do not pass the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA). Of those students, 9,514 took all required parts of the test and only 34 percent passed, according to the law center's data.

Of the 4,293 who took all required parts of the language arts test, only 10 percent passed.

In Burlington and Camden Counties, 13 percent of students who took all language-arts sections passed. In Gloucester County, the rate was 6 percent, according to the data.

On the math, about one-third passed in all three counties.

Among Camden City students, only 4 percent passed the reading and writing test, and 8 percent passed the math.

The law center has called on the state to treat this year's test as a pilot, as it has other high-stakes tests in their early years, and let local districts determine whether students may graduate this spring while the state reviews the new test process.

"They rolled this out and have been making this up as they have been going along," said Stan Karp, director of the law center's Secondary Reform Project.

Thousands of students might not graduate, and many might just drop out, he said. Most affected will be low-income students, students of color, and nonnative English speakers.

Many students who have struggled through four years of school are very demoralized, educators said.

"I have one student who got accepted to a four-year college on a football scholarship," said Erica Schmid, a Maple Shade teacher. "He doesn't know if he can go."

Deputy Education Commissioner Willa Spicer said it was the schools that the failing students attended that might have some answering to do.

"Somehow, [the students] reached their senior year without mastering fundamental math and language arts skills," Spicer said in a statement. "The schools that failed the students must be held accountable for the results, and we must do a better job of helping students long before their final year of study."

Spicer, who did not try to refute the law center's information but called it "incomplete and unofficial," said the state would not throw out the test scores. If students ultimately fail, she said, they will have been given six chances - three tries each on the HSPA and AHSA - to prove mastery of basic skills.

Another round of AHSA testing finished last week, and students will get an additional chance, if needed, in August. She said she hoped more would pass.

In the meantime, Spicer said, the state is in the process of having 3,600 tests with marginal results reevaluated to see whether more should get a passing grade.

Education Commissioner Bret Schundler recommended that school administrators let students who have yet to pass the test take part in graduation ceremonies but withhold their diplomas until they pass. Schools, however, don't have to let the students walk.

The AHSA replaced the Special Review Assessment, which some critics say was overused and needed more accountability. The content of the tests is basically the same, officials and educators said, but they are administered differently. Also, the new test is being scored by an outside firm, Measurement Inc. of North Carolina, instead of by the students' teachers.

Many in the education community said they were shocked by the low passing rate, especially since the former rate was about 96 percent.

The law center and educators differ sharply from the state on what is to blame for January's poor results.

State spokesman Alan Guenther said the biggest difference from the past was that an outsider, rather than New Jersey teachers, graded the new exams. Guenther said the teachers might have treated their students too leniently.

"We were concerned that the integrity of the high school diploma was being compromised," he said.

Spicer said the state Board of Education had concerns for years about the way the previous exam was administered, including the fact that the students' teachers graded them.

Educators and the center, however, said the problem was the unstudied changes made to the process, which include fewer opportunities for retakes, as well as fewer reading selections and some that were not culturally neutral. They also question the training and qualifications of the graders, and they want an explanation of grading standards.

In addition, educators said that in the past, students were provided scoring guides for specific language-arts passages, which explained what was needed to earn a given grade. The guides were not given out this year.

Ann Ryan, a high school English teacher in Lindenwold, said that after the January test results came out a few weeks ago - with only a few weeks to help prepare students for the next testing round - the state would not provide the scoring guides or students' failing answers to help them figure out where they fell short.

"It's patently unfair because it creates a mystery," Ryan said. "The kids have zero feedback on their January scores. The teachers got no feedback."

Defending the state's procedures, Guenther noted that nonnative speakers can use dictionaries during the tests if terms are unfamiliar. He dismissed the importance of the scoring guides educators said were helpful.

"Skilled teachers can easily discern and interpret their students' deficiencies," he said.

Students should not just be passed through, he said. "The diploma has to mean something."

Anthony Ferrante, director of high school guidance in Maple Shade, did not disagree but said that something had obviously changed in the process and that teachers needed to be informed.

"Kids will need to demonstrate they have the knowledge," he said. "No one is saying, give them a free pass. Just give them a fair assessment."

Karp, calling for the state to set this year's results aside, said prospective 2010 graduates should not be penalized for what he believed was a flawed process.

"If the department wants to change the standard, they can't do it . . . months before graduation," he said.