More students passed New Jersey's new alternative high school exit exam on their second try, but as many as 4,500 students remain in danger of not graduating this month, according to testimony Thursday by Education Commissioner Bret Schundler.

About half the students who had failed the Alternative High School Assessment in January passed it when they took it again in April, Schundler told the state Senate Education Committee.

Nevertheless, he said, "at this point we're dealing with about 4,500 students" statewide who have not passed.

The alternative assessment is a second-chance graduation exam for students who fail the High School Proficiency Assessment test three times. This year for the first time, the alternative test was graded by an outside firm instead of by the students' teachers. State officials have said this year's high failure rate shows that teachers were too lenient in scoring.

However, the advocacy nonprofit Education Law Center, which brought the January test's failure rate to light, and educators have said the problems were with the way the test was administered. They also say the state failed to pilot the process as it had with other new tests.

According to data from the law center, only 34 percent of the students who took the math test in January passed. In language arts, the rate was an even more dismal 10 percent.

Educators have said some students now have college scholarships in jeopardy, and others may just give up and drop out.

At Thursday's hearing, Schundler named some ways the department has come up with for students who have the failed the test to still get a diploma, besides taking the exam a third time in August.

Schools can appeal to the state by making a case with documentation that a student has the skills needed to graduate. About 100 such appeals have been filed, Schundler said, but since schools received April results only this week, there may be more.

The deadline to file an appeal is Monday - a tight time frame that advocates have objected to.

Schools also can graduate students who have gotten acceptable scores on other tests even if they have not passed the alternative test. For example, a student who has scored 400 out of 800 points on a section of the SAT may graduate.

The Education Department also has said it would allow students who have failed only one of four parts in the math portion to retest this month.

Stan Karp, director of the law center's Secondary Reform Project, in a separate interview, called the department's response inadequate.

"We're glad they've opened a few more doors for graduation, but the department has badly mishandled his test," Karp said, "and this last-minute scrambling will not undo all the damage."

For students who will retake the test in August, Schundler said, the state will provide online tutoring.

Sen. James Whelan (D., Atlantic), however, expressed concern that low-income students might not have a computer at home and might be in a district keeping school buildings closed this summer due to budget cuts.

The Rev. Reginald T. Jackson, executive director of the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey, in a written statement called on the state to address the lack of quality education that left students without the necessary skills.