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Interim Report Lays Out First Assessments of State's Testing Efforts

State Education Commissioner Hespe heads up panel, promises to take parents' concerns about overtesting into consideration

Hespe
Credit: Amanda Brown
State Education Commissioner David Hespe

As New Jersey moves into a lively week of discussion over school testing, the Christie administration probably did little to calm the debate with an interim report released on Friday from a commission charged with reviewing the issue.

The report from the Christie-appointed panel -- dated December 31 to meet its year-end deadline but released three weeks later -- mostly laid out the nine-member group’s plans to evaluate the state’s testing regimen, past and present.

Included are public hearings planned for this week, starting Tuesday in Camden County, weather permitting.

With a final report still forthcoming, the commission’s initial recommendations centered on doing more study, especially on the issue of overtesting, and implored districts to review their own policies, including the use of district-driven assessments that are separate from the state’s own requirements.

State Education Commissioner David Hespe, who chaired the commission, said it is not just the state assessments that are adding to the public misgivings.

The state’s previous testing “was only six hours, but we known that there are many, many more hours that the districts use for assessment,” Hespe said in an interview upon the report’s release Friday.

“But the question is whether every one of those is high quality,” he said, “Are they redundant? Could they be used for multiple purposes? … These are questions that need to be answered at the local level.”

This week is expected to be as tempestuous as any dedicated to the topic, as the commission holds three hearings in three days for the public to weigh in.

Likely more at issue is the upcoming Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests being launched by the administration, a longer online system of testing that has generated intense debate.

In preparation, the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union, is expected to release today its own polling that it said will point up the public dissatisfaction with the state of student testing in New Jersey.

Dissent -- or at least caution -- is surfacing in the Legislature, too. One forthcoming bill from state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), chair of the Assembly education committee, would protect students who ask to sit out the upcoming tests in what is a growing protest movement in a number of districts.

He said a second bill still being revised could seek some delay in the use of the PARCC results. ‘There is so much distrust and misinformation right now,” Diegnan said yesterday. “We really need to have more discussion.”

Meanwhile, on the other side, a coalition of groups is coordinating a public relations campaign to explain PARCC and help the districts’ transition. The coalition called “We Raise NJ” -- including the state PTA and associations representing school boards and administrators -- said they would pressing the value of the new testing, and getting out information to families.

“Parents understandably have many questions about the PARCC assessments, and we think it’s essential to address all of them by helping parents understand what to expect,” said Debbie Tyrrell, NJPTA president.

The administration’s report released Friday stands by the state’s launch of PARCC testing for at least this spring. But Hespe stressed that the state system would also face scrutiny once the first year of PARCC is completed, including how the test was administered and the results themselves.

But he also said he has yet to hear from critics about what would be an acceptable alternative.

“What’s the strategy to get at the challenges we face and the fact we have students graduating high school only to flounder,” he said. “In my mind, staying where we are is unacceptable.”

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