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New Task Force Tackles Familiar Topic: College and Career Readiness

Report due to governor by year end, with many opinions and options still to consider.

Three years ago, a large state-appointed task force issued a plan for "redesigning" the state's public high schools to better prepare students for college and work.

This month, the state is back at it -- a different governor and task force but a familiar mission to define "college and career readiness" and set new requirements for courses and testing.

Yet for all the déjà vu, the results may be a bit different this time, given that national standardized tests are coming and that accountability -- for schools, students, and especially teachers -- has become a major concern.

That may be why the Christie administration insists that this time will be different.

"This is the first time we have really had all the various sectors in one group: schools, higher education and business," said David Hespe, chief of staff to acting state education commissioner Chris Cerf.

"We are looking for standards that are meaningful for all those sectors, where community colleges can use them for setting their programs and business can know that students are prepared for employment," he said.

Hespe leads the new College and Career Readiness Task Force, which held its first public hearing last night at County College of Morris and will meet again Thursday night at Stockton State College.

The 20-member committee doesn’t have much time, its charge is to deliver an initial report to the governor by the end of the year. It could suggest new course requirements, individual exams, or a continuation of some form of the current high school proficiency tests and requirements. Or all of the above.

"We are probably staying at the 10,000-foot level, but these are all things we are talking about," Hespe said last night.

One thing is certain, something will surely change -- because it has to. New Jersey is among more than 40 states that have signed onto the Common Core State Standards, which will effectively set a national curriculum in at least math, language arts and science. With that will come new tests as well, with New Jersey signed up for an assessment model to start in 2014.

In the meantime, the state's current contract for its high school test -- with Measurement Inc., its longtime testing vendor -- expires this year, leaving the current exams and the students taking them in limbo.

Further complicating issues is the fact that the state is embarking on a new teacher evaluation system that will rely heavily on standardized assessments, which may be actual tests or other measures.

At the hearing last night, the two dozen attendees raised concerns as to what would or would not be included, a familiar argument from the state's last round of debates in 2008, when graduation requirements were hotly contested.

There were those from the world languages worried about their classes, and those from the earth sciences who say their courses don't always fall easily into the favored sequence of biology, chemistry, and physics.

Missy Holzer of the National Earth Science Educators Association said the current requirement for at least one general earth science course has served the state well, instead of "pigeonholing" students into specific course like physics.

"There are jobs out there for the geo sciences," she said. "We can't forget that."

A big concern last night came from the vocational and technical education community, which has long worried that its unique mission would be weakened by a single model and assessment.

"We ask you to keep in mind that one size does not fit all, and a single college preparatory curriculum will not met the needs of all New Jersey students," read the testimony from Mikki Regan, curriculum director for Morris County Vocational Schools.

"As New Jersey reviews its high school graduation requirements, it is essential to maintain multiple pathways to success," she said.

One of the last to speak was Robert Price, curriculum director for Northern Valley Regional High School in Demarest, and he conceded afterward that all this has a familiar ring. But he said the advent of a national curriculum and assessment in three years changes the rules somewhat, and he argued maybe the state should wait for that, giving the schools a bit of a breather.

"Not so much to let them off the hook, but a chance to prepare," he said.

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