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Opinion: PARCC’s Long Goodbye, a Very Good Thing for New Jersey

Promising to scrap PARCC on Day 1 made for a good sound bite, but it makes for bad education policy

laura waters
Laura Waters

At the 2016 New Jersey Education Association annual convention, keynoter and future governor Phil Murphy, toe embedded deep behind the union line, vowed to “scrap PARCC Day One.” You’ve heard the reasons: these standardized assessments in math and English Language arts (ELA), says the NJEA, “take the love of learning from our schools and children.” It’s a “high-stakes standardized testing fad” echoes Save Our Schools-NJ (ignoring federal law that mandates annual testing) that “encourages widespread cheating and corruption,” stresses out teachers and students, and sets up public schools to fail.

Indeed, it’s easy to pine for the good old days — say, 2014, the last year our old ASK and HSPA state-standardized tests were administered — when we could crow that 75 percent of our fourth-graders were proficient in math and 60 percent were proficient in ELA. One year later, PARCC tallied up far grimmer proficiency rates for fourth graders of 40 percent in math and 51 percent in ELA. Sure, we all want honest assessments of student achievement. But those numbers are hard to accept in a state rightly revered for its great public schools. There’s something wrong with the tests, right?

Let’s ask NAEP.

For those of you new to the acronymic world of education, NAEP is short for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a set of assessments given in every state (plus the District of Columbia) every two years to a random sampling of fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders. NAEP is often referred to as “the Nation’s Report Card” and the “gold standard” for accurate assessments. Diane Ravitch, goddess of the anti-accountability sect, says that NAEP, on whose governing board she served for seven years, is “the only gauge of change over time.”

It seems, then, a worthwhile exercise to compare the gold standard of NAEP — 2017 scores were just released — against the much-maligned PARCC. (We’ll leave off eighth-grade math because 30 - 40 percent of eighth-graders take the Algebra 1 assessment instead of the eighth-grade PARCC assessment and cumulative scores are artificially low.) The numbers in this table are the percentage of students who reached the bar of proficiency or advanced proficiency.

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What do you see? Two-out-of-three sampled student outcomes are very close between NAEP and PARCC. In eighth grade ELA, PARCC was easier for our students.

We touted our NAEP scores to the skies: acting Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet called them “an outstanding accolade for our students and educators.” Why don’t we say the same thing about PARCC?

Maybe we’re starting to.

From the State House, a few signs of sanity: “There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to changing a test, such as graduation requirements or length of the assessments,” Commissioner Repollet told Assembly members this week. “All of those things need to be looked at.” Senator Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chair of the Education Committee and member of the Joint Committee on the Public Schools, noted that procurement requirements could take three years and remarked that PARCC “has provided valuable feedback on student performance that previous tests had not.”

Senator Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth) said, “whatever we end up with, we need to communicate to folks … that it will look much more similar to what’s gone on before than different.” Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor-Marin (D-Essex), chair of the Budget Committee, asked, “are we taking into consideration what will be the cost of rolling out a new test? These things are quite expensive.”

Several legislators worried that Jersey parents and teachers mistakenly believed that PARCC is over, just like the governor promised the NJEA, and that students won’t be adequately prepared this year. Ruiz: “My concern is about sending mixed messages. (Repollet) was very clear today that even if the process was to start today, we’re under contract for this year and the next academic school year.”

With all due respect, what are we doing? We had a test that dramatically overstated student achievement, a fact recognized years ago by Jon Corzine’s Education Commissioner Lucille Davy. Now we have a test that is aligned with the “the only gauge of change over time.” Do we really want to spend the millions of dollars in new test development and the millions of hours in professional development in order to replace an accurate assessment?

Upon his successor’s inauguration, former President Barack Obama told a reporter that it was important for Donald Trump to “figure out what his priorities are, to be able to distinguish between what he was campaigning on and what’s practical.”

He continued, “There are certain things that make for good sound bites, but don’t always translate into good policy. That’s something he and his team will wrestle with in the same way every president wrestles with it.”

Gov. Murphy is no Trump (praise all that is holy), but maybe he is struggling with the same differentiation between campaigning and governing. Or maybe he’s not. Maybe he’s got this. Maybe he knows that he is not beholden to a promise he made in 2016 as a candidate, before he was knowledgeable about PARCC tests in general and the replacement process in particular.

Maybe he knows that PARCC can be revised or shortened or renamed without a massive expenditure of fiscal and human capital. Maybe he knows that schools have recovered from the inevitable difficulties of transitioning to a new test and our kids are just fine. Maybe he knows that it’s time to step back and reassess his old stance on student assessments.

Now that’s what President Obama would call “good policy.”

Laura Waters writes about education politics and policy for NJ Left Behind, New York School Talk, Education Post, and other publications. She was a school board member in Lawrence Township (Mercer County) for 12 years and served nine years as president.

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