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What Do High Scores on NAEP Mean for Murphy’s PARCC Plans?

With NJ ranked at or near top on the Nation’s Report Card, some members of state board aren’t so sure PARCC needs to be scrapped

Ronald Butcher
Ronald Butcher, senior member of state Board of Education

When New Jersey’s latest scores on the national NAEP tests came out in April, they were reason for celebration among education leaders who touted how the state does as well or better than any other in the country.

But when a presentation on the results came before the State Board of Education last week, board members had a different line of inquiry: How does New Jersey’s experience with National Assessment of Educational Progress inform Gov. Phil Murphy’s plans to replace its current PARCC exams?

It’s going to be a big role for the board in the next year, as it will be tasked with reviewing and approving any changes in the state’s assessment system that Murphy has vowed are coming.

Yet there is hardly consensus on the board that PARCC needs to be replaced at all, and board members queried administration officials about what could be learned from NAEP — also known as “The Nation’s Report Card — which is known to be fairly rigorous.

Only about 50 percent of students reach its proficiency levels in reading and math, if even that high.

First things first

The first question at the board’s meeting last Wednesday was about why officials thought New Jersey had fared so well in the 2017 administration of reading and math in grades four and eight. New Jersey has always been in the top echelon on the NAEP tests, which are given in every state to a small sampling of students. But not only were the results strong, but also they had shown notable improvements since the last administration in 2015.

New Jersey tied for first with the highest scores in grade four reading and math, and tied for second in grade eight reading and math. In grade four, virtually every subgroup of students improved over 2015.

The state’s longtime testing director, Jeff Hauger, said the state had yet to do an analysis of the scores to determine the reasons behind the improvements. “We are presenting you the data we have but I couldn’t attribute it to one or two reasons behind those changes,” he said.

But the board’s president Arcelio Aponte quickly jumped in, crediting the state’s adoption of Common Core State Standards and the PARCC exams in helping raise the bar on its students. Aponte has been among the board’s most vocal backers of PARCC.

“All things are accumulating into what we see here as progress,” said Aponte. “This is another example of how New Jersey is offering the best public school system in the country.”

Common Core no more?

Acting commissioner Lamont Repollet pointed especially to the state’s educators and students gaining familiarity with the Common Core standards — which have since been revised slightly and renamed the New Jersey Student Learning Standards.

“As we apply that more to our curriculum to support those standards, you will see our students do well,” he said.

But questions then focused on the NAEP test itself. Each of the tests is given to a 2 percent sample of each class — totaling about 9,000 students — who are chosen by the National Center for Educational Statistics to be demographically reflective of the state as whole.

A few board members probed to how those samples are derived.

“One of the bigger policy debates we are having pertains to PARCC,” said Ronald Butcher, the board’s most senior member. “And as we look at different methods of determining how well our students are doing in any subject, one of the personal considerations I have is taking a look at NAEP scores or a test similar to that.”

Butcher asked if a 2 percent sample was enough of a valid measure. “When I see a 2 percent random sample, it raises the statistics background in my mind,” he said.

Aponte said the NAEP results are relatively comparable to PARCC, where also roughly 50 percent of New Jersey students reach proficiency levels in elementary and middle-school reading and math.

He said the state’s previous exams — the NJASK for the third and eighth grades and the HSPA in high school — saw results considerably higher in the 70 percent – 80 percent range. “There were some who felt those tests inflated the progress of our students,” Aponte said of the previous exams.

“It appears based on the data alone that PARCC is much more consistent with what is considered the best of the assessments in NAEP,” Aponte said.

Hauger concurred that PARCC was a significant shift for New Jersey, that drew it closer to NAEP’s results, and called it some “validation” of the PARCC results. But given his job now in the Murphy administration, he was diplomatic about what lies ahead.

“We are always looking to improve upon our assessments, and this is a great opportunity to continue in that improvement,” he said.

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