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Opinion: The Promise of NJ SMART (Standards Measurement and Resource for Teaching)

Now is the time to fully implement a robust performance evaluation system to improve public education.

Acting State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf introduced last week the administration's proposals for reinventing teacher tenure. The Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA), a pilot program to provide private vouchers to low-income students, is gaining momentum in the Statehouse with a final vote perhaps next month. Superior Court Judge Peter Doyne is holding fact-finding hearings on the fundamental question of whether "the state…can provide for a thorough and efficient education as measured by the comprehensive core curriculum standards" for disadvantaged students with reduced levels of funding.

We haven’t had this much action in public education since perhaps the 1970's when Robinson vs. Cahill was filed, beginning the 40-year effort to close the achievement gap and the income tax was established for public education. Unfortunately, our public debate has not devoted nearly enough attention to determine if these programs are effective or how we even measure effectiveness.

The little-known NJ SMART (Standards Measurement and Resource for Teaching) program is the state’s solution to establish a more rigorous performance evaluation system for public education. It uniquely identifies students as they enroll in the public schools and tracks their state test scores and other measures of performance over time, even though the student may move from one district to another. It can evaluate the effectiveness of programs down to the classroom level, since each student is linked to a teacher as they move from grade to grade and school to school. It is the basis of how the state proposes to calculate the often debated value-added scores to evaluate teachers in the future. NJ SMART is a dramatic improvement to the more popular School Report Card because it tracks the microtrends of student- and classroom-level performance over time, as opposed to a high-level snapshot of the school- or district-level performance.

If every public school in NJ were to consistently and rigorously evaluate the progress of every student and improve instructional practices to meet the needs of each student, there would be no need for NJ SMART. Unfortunately, only the high-performing schools do, and thousands of kids are lost in the system as a result. NJ SMART attempts to standardize the statewide process to evaluate students and provide early warning signs of schools that are not cutting it. The system also streamlines the dozens of onerous and redundant reports required to meet state and federal mandates.

Full disclosure: I was the first director of NJ SMART beginning in 2002, when the vision and design of the system were established, including the measurements captured in today's program. Despite the need and the No Child Left Behind requirement to establish such a system, the political will and resources did not exist to fully launch the program. The lesson learned is that it takes the governor's and commissioner of education’s full support and personal backing over years to fully implement NJ SMART. The bureaucratic inertia of the state and hundreds of school districts, legal constraints, antiquated technology and the lack of technical knowledge in the school districts all contributed to the slow pace of implementation. In 2006, a team from Public Consulting Group, overseen by Dr. Bari Erlichson, Director of the Office of Research and Evaluation, took over the management of the program and they have done a good job of implementing the early phases of the system despite the continued lack of funding.

In the fall of 2007, a unique student identifier was assigned to all public school students in the state with privacy protection in accordance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). And statewide test scores for each student going back to 1999 were incorporated into NJ SMART, connecting for the first time student-level achievement results over time.

Gov. Chris Christie recognized the importance of NJ SMART and proposed, beginning in 2010, a budget that is commensurate with the $5 million to $10 million per year required to implement a statewide student-level performance-monitoring system. In 2011, teacher data will be added to NJ SMART to begin the teacher evaluation component proposed by the Christie administration. And further down the road, test results for students in grades that do not take the statewide exams (NJ Assessment of Skills and Knowledge or NJ ASK) or take non-NJ ASK subjects can be tracked. Local assessments, grades, financial data tied to student programs could also be monitored in the future.

Many challenges still remain, however, to realize the full potential of NJ SMART. I offer three suggestions:

Improve Data Integrity

Data quality coming from certain school districts is just not reliable enough to draw important conclusions about program effectiveness. The most useful way to improve the quality and consistency of the data is to directly tie state aid to the quality of reports submitted by school districts to the state. In addition, the dozens of reports school districts submit to the state should be streamlined into a single report.

Improve Professional Development and Training

Improve the professional development and training of teachers, administrators, parents and technology coordinators to better understand and interpret test scores and other performance measures in NJ SMART. The quantitative measures of NJ SMART are objective, but the interpretation or analysis of these results should be improved. These measures can be enormously helpful in diagnosing the progress of students, but they also have their limitations. Educators should better understand the benefits and limitations of these results. And while NJ SMART will provide invaluable information for improving policy and programs, the focus of NJ SMART should be on providing teachers in the classroom a powerful tool to improve their craft. Ultimately, a robust data analysis tool, available now to some districts, should be provided to every teacher to determine how to improve teaching and learning.

Provide NJ SMART Data for Research Purposes

The NJ Department of Education should routinely provide privacy-protected, student-level longitudinal data to independent organizations with the proper research experience to evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of NJ’s educational programs. The exploration or mining of this information will yield surprising results. Partnering with many different research organizations will accelerate the process of discovery and innovation.

Now is the time to seize the opportunity to fully implement NJ SMART -- an objective, data-driven performance-monitoring system for New Jersey public education. Given all the recent interest to reform the system, wouldn’t it be wise to invest a small amount to better understand how these reforms are affecting our schools? Both proponents and opponents of these reforms should be supportive of a system that will provide the evidence to prove their case.

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