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Christie Still Straddles Fence on Online Tests, Common Core Standards

Cites value of standardized tests as measure of school quality, but takes wait-and-see approach on PARCC

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Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Gov. Chris Christie speaks during his "town hall"-type public meeting yesterday in Cedar Grove.

Gov. Chris Christie yesterday offered some of his most expansive comments – if not an outright defense -- on the new PARCC tests and against the movement that has seen as many as 50,000 students sit out the exams.

In one of his weekly “town hall” meetings, this one in Cedar Grove, he responded to a Montclair mother’s questions about his position on the testing and his administration’s not-so-veiled threats that schools with very high opt-out numbers could face sanctions and potential loss of federal aid.

Federal and state rules dating back to the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act require that at least 95 percent of students participate in the annual testing. The mandate was meant to prevent school districts from essentially “hiding” their lowest-performing students -- the opt-out issues weren’t an issue at the time.

But those 2001 provisions have become the new hammer for states facing rising civil disobedience over the testing – and Christie’s reply yesterday hardly emphasized the threat of penalties for schools with excessive opt-out rates.

“These are not just state matters, but federal rules,” Christie said. “If you violate the federal standards, there will be penalties.

“If they opt out, that’s their right. But don’t come back and complain that you don’t get the money you used to.”

But Christie’s remarks became more nuanced after that statement. In what has been political balancing act when it comes to the new tests, and especially the Common Core State Standards that are the centerpiece of the tests, Christie once again offered lukewarm support of the testing and instead said the jury is still out.

“If the results come back and don’t make sense, we’ll look for changes to the test,” the governor said. “There is no test that is going to be perfect.”

Christie has become more circumspect about the standards and testing since he began positioning himself for a possible run for the White House. The Common Core standards in particular are anathema to the more conservative wing of the national GOP.

Christie said a state task force reviewing the PARCC assessments and the Common Core will have a report within a couple of weeks.

“The biggest limitation I have right now is not having the results yet,” he said. “Without having the results, I can’t make a judgment of whether the test is valid or invalid.”

Still, in the end, he did not back down on the value of testing in general, saying that while families in districts like Montclair or his hometown of Livingston – another big opt-out district -- may not worry as much about the quality of their schools, that is hardly the case in every district.

“There is no way to evaluate across the test but by (state) testing,” Christie said. “If we don’t, we won’t know. I grew up in Livingston, a great school system where most kids did really well. And maybe they’re not worried as much in a district like that. And in Montclair, it’s an outstanding school system, and you’re not worried as much. But the fact is we need to know in other places where kids are not doing as well. And we need to be able to compare it other places.”

“The more the participation, the better I can determine if the test is good,” Christie concluded. “The less participation, the less valid the results.”

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