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When NJ Kids Take Out No. 2 Pencils, They’ll be Testing the Test

When elementary and middle school students sit down next month for the annual state testing, they will get their first taste of new national academic standards coming to New Jersey –- even if they may not know it.

The Christie administration will begin to “field test” questions derived from the new Common Core State Standards into the next NJASK tests, given to every student Grades 3-8.

The practice questions are common in any state testing, unbeknownst to students and not counting toward their scores. But state officials said these will be the first in the state’s transition to a whole new battery of testing that will come with the Common Core, starting in earnest in 2015.

New Jersey is one of 45 states moving toward the Common Core standards, along with new testing that is being developed through a national consortium. The standards are advertised as providing more depth and rigor to existing state standards that vary across the country.

Participating states are being required to start the transition to the Common Core in both their curriculum development and testing, beginning this year.

“This will definitely be a transition,” Penny MacCormack, the state’s assistant commissioner, said of the curriculum and testing changes she is overseeing. “The new standards are definitely different.”

The state’s work being shared with districts has been in the elementary and middle schools. Administration officials have been mostly silent about their high school plans, tossing out a few hints about replacing the existing High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) but only saying a full announcement will come this month. The last HSPA was administered in March.

Of the younger students taking NJASK in May, MacCormack said in an interview yesterday that the intention of the field testing is to see how the students fare and what needs to be addressed, including in the testing itself.

“That’s why you field test,” she said. “Some questions may not be ready for prime time.”

At the same time, MacCormack’s office is starting to roll out a model curriculum it is developing to assist districts in aligning their own teaching. While voluntary for most districts, the model curriculum may be ordered for the lowest-performing schools and districts under the administration’s new accountability system.

The first of the math curricula will be posted by the state department for educators to review by the end of this month, MacCormack said. The math as well as language arts curriculum will be separated into five six-week teaching units for every grade, all of which will be available by this summer, she said.

Each unit will also come with student assessments that teachers can use, those starting to be rolled out in the summer in time for the next school year.

MacCormack said the model curriculum development has involved scores of teachers and supervisors, with the assistant commissioner herself serving as the final editor. She said the feedback coming next would be invaluable in developing it further.

“This is the first round: Model Curriculum 1.0,” MacCormack said of the first units. “Folks in the field are eager to now have this kind of give-and-take exchange.”

State officials have been less forthcoming about what will happen in the high schools and the state’s existing exams, currently required for graduation.

The Common Core standards include high school grades as well, but state officials have not said how -- or if -- the state’s current High School Proficiency Assessment will transition in the next two years. It tests 11th and 12th graders in math and language arts.

Acting Commissioner Chris Cerf has said he wants to move to specific subject exams, and Gov. Chris Christie’s budget includes $1.7 million for next year to start the change to five end-of-course exams.

But they have provided no further details, and it has been a long-running source of tension with some critics, including the Education Law Center, the advocacy group that has led the Abbott v. Burke litigation.

Stan Karp, an ELC program director, said the state’s silence has left countless students and their schools in limbo on a test that students will need to graduate. That is especially problematic in urban districts where the numbers of those at risk are considerably higher. There is an alternative test for those who now fail the HSPA, but its fate is also uncertain.

Yesterday, Karp released an undated draft report from the department’s assessment director, Jeffrey Hauger, indicating this is the last year of the HSPA.

“The only certainty is that after 2012, we will not have a high school assessment,” Hauger said in the report, which the ELC received through a public records request.

Karp also released a letter he sent to Cerf yesterday with a list of questions regarding the fate of the exams, including whether there would be field tests to help prepare students before the exams are required.

Justin Barra, the department’s communications director, yesterday said they were “legitimate and valid questions, and we will address them in short order.”

Still, that hasn’t much squelched the criticism. Eric Milou, a Rowan University math professor who leads a coalition of math and science educators, said the state is asking for trouble.

“Quite frankly it is ridiculous that the state has not informed districts about their high school assessment plans for 2012-13 and beyond,” said Milou, director of the New Jersey Math & Science Coalition.

“Current 9th and 10th grade students and teachers throughout the state have no idea how to prepare their students for their graduation assessment,” he said. “Lawsuits from students are all but certain due to the lack of information from DOE.”

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