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Spotlight Q&A: High School Students Talk Testing

Now that Christie has announced new testing plans, some of the state's top students grade their exams.

Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen

They are arguably the 1 percent of New Jersey’s high school population, students from schools where virtually everyone passes the state’s high school exit exam.

At West Windsor Plainsboro Regional High Schools, the state’s High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) is more a nuisance than a true gauge of academic prowess.

If you ask them about high-stakes testing, answers include SAT, ACT and AP.

So when Gov. Chris Christie came to WWP North in Plainsboro on Monday to announce new testing rules for New Jersey graduates starting in 2016, he wasn’t exactly talking to a crowd that would quake under his plans.

But in conversations with a handful of student journalists who attended the announcement to report on it for their peers, the reactions were interesting for their insights on school testing, income’s impact on education, and what at least these teenagers think should matter in education.

Question: What’s your reaction to Christie’s announcement that the HSPA would be phased out as a high school test and replaced by end-of-year exams?

Jeffrey Yu, 18, senior, WWP South: “At West Windsor Plainsboro South, there hasn’t been a year when a kid didn’t pass the HSPA. It’s an easy test for our district. For myself, I definitely thought it was pretty easy.

“I wouldn’t say it’s eighth grade [level]. It had algebra, so I would say that is more 10th grade or high 9th. But look at all the other tests we are taking, the SAT, the ACTs, AP English or math, compared to them, it’s a piece of cake.”

Ruby Shao, 16, junior, WWP South: “I think [the HSPA] is a little too long, though. It’s three days. And I agree it doesn’t measure by pushing you to do your best, it basically measures the minimum. But it’s repetitive, it’s like the same thing for three days.”

Yu: “But I think that is this district. The culture and environment we grow up in, we can’t know a bit of what it’s like to be growing up in Trenton or Camden and what it feels like for them.”

Q: For those districts, should the state be raising the bar on what it takes to receive a high school diploma?

Yu: “It kind of feels like the anti-bullying law, where let’s give these schools a mandate for doing something and not provide the resources to do it. The governor’s comment with Asbury Park [and it’s $30,000 per student spending], maybe it does take $30,000 for a kid to learn there. They don’t have the issues in schools as here, they don’t always have the same supports at home.”

“Christie makes a good point that you need to spend correctly, but you shouldn’t then cut the money.”

Stephen Konowitz, 17, senior, WWP North: “You do want to get to these goals, but how do you get there? What are the necessities and how are we planning out how we will get there? “

“You can’t throw money at the problem, but that’s just part of it. How do you make sure the teachers are qualified? And kids have outside lives, too, and it all factors into the classroom. Not sure all this objective data is saying everything about how good is the classroom or how good is a student or how good is a teacher.”

Q: What about adding end-of-course tests in language arts and math in 8th, 9th, and 10th grades, as Christie proposed?

Shao: “I see what he wants to do, but don’t think it is necessary to do in 9th, 10th and 11th. Even if you say don’t teach to the test, the teachers will still want to prepare their kids. That will take time from the actual curriculum. It’s the same criticism as with current HSPA, if only on math and English, people won’t focus on the other things.”

Yu: “And you are taking money from one aspect of school experience and giving it to another. Even in this district, where we do have enough money, we still have clubs cut and fewer now than three years ago before the 2010 cuts. Everyone feels the impact. I can only imagine when you lose your breakfast program in a Trenton school, or something like that.”

Shao: “I’m glad we are growing up before this all happens. There is too much testing, too much reliance on statistics and teaching based on statistics. We had it but wasn’t as extensive.”

Q: Are there good tests that measure important skills? What about the state’s pilot biology test given now in 9th grade? Or the Advanced Placement tests many students take?

Yu: “Not sure we ever got the results of the bio test, but it didn’t count anyway and kids didn’t take that seriously.

“With AP tests, I think it requires you to understand the test, but you also need the information. You have to know how to write an essay, but you need to have the information.”

Shao: “And you are glad when it’s over.”

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