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Administration Wants to Be Clear About PARCC’s Role in High-School Graduation

State officials look to lay out their position on new online tests, while NJ’s largest teachers union voices its displeasure

computer testing

The Christie administration’s plan to use new online tests as a way to certify that high-school students are ready to graduate continued to draw fire yesterday, with state officials seeking to clarify their plans and the state’s largest teachers union joining the fray.

The administration under acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe on Tuesday announced a new policy that would provide several pathways for students to meet state graduation requirements in the next three years, including the use of the new online tests known as PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers).

But the announcement drew quick reaction from some who cited previous comments from the administration that the new test in high school would not have high stakes or consequences for students in its initial years.

Yesterday, Hespe and senior staff continued to insist that passing the test would not be required for graduation. Rather, it was just one option among what he called a “broad menu” of options, including minimum SAT and ACT scores or even a separate appeals process that includes a review of classroom work.

“In no way, shape or form does a school have to use [PARCC] for graduation,” Hespe said. “We’re just saying they can use it.”

Hespe said he would be providing more information in the coming days and weeks that he hoped would help explain what he acknowledged is a complex issue.

“We will be sending out a Q&A in the next few days that we hope will answer a lot of the questions,” he said yesterday.

“We know this will be an extended conversation, and we want to be sure everyone understands what we are doing.”

The announcement from the department drew sharp comments yesterday from the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s dominant teachers union.

In a press statement released late in the day, NJEA president Wendell Steinhauer said the latest development was ““a poorly-timed decision that has caused great confusion among students and educators.” “While this policy may meet the spirit of the state assessment law, it’s a stretch to say that it establishes a legitimate standard for graduation,” he said.

Steinhauer also claimed that New Jersey was alone in proposing to use the test as a graduation standard at all in its first year.

“No other state is going down this road,” said Steinhauer. “The PARCC is so new, and has so many questions, that no other state is proposing to use it in this way. In fact, states are fleeing the PARCC in droves because of those concerns.” Amid the back and forth that continued throughout the day, including on social media where dozens of comments decried the state’s plans, Hespe explained how the administration reached this decision and what lies ahead.

In a topic sure to be debated, Hespe maintained that the department did have authority under current law to make at least these interim changes without additional statutory or regulatory approval.

He cited existing law that requires an exit exam for graduation, but also the use of alternative measures. The state previously required students pass the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) to graduate, but also allowed for an alternative test and the appeal process.

“The statutes provide us with flexibility in what we can do,” Hespe said. “We have pretty broad discretion to the use of alternative tests and an appeals process.”

Hespe left open the possibility of further public discussion and legislative or regulatory changes in establishing how much the PARCC tests will count toward graduation in coming years.

He said that the state’s College and Career Readiness Task Force, which he chaired, would convene after the first results of PARCC are released to start the discussions of what should be required in the long term. The task force made its most recent recommendations in 2012.

In addition, he said that a new commission created by Gov. Chris Christie to study the impact of new and previous testing on all facets of public education would also have a prominent role in determining next steps.

Established by executive order this summer, the commission has yet to meet or be appointed, but Hespe said that would be coming shortly.

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