Hespe Assures Senate Panel PARCC Is on Track, Despite Lingering Doubts

John Mooney | April 8, 2014 | Education
Technology readiness remains largest concern, with recent reports showing only 70 percent of field trials were up to the task

PARCC online testing
As New Jersey moves deeper into online student testing, cost and capacity continue to be key concerns, with updates doing little to quell the questions.

Acting Education Commissioner David Hespe last week provided the latest word on both topics, when he spoke before the state Senate budget committee. He discussed whether districts were up to the demands of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) — a statewide assessment of students using online testing

PARCC is being field tested in more than 1,000 New Jersey schools this spring, and will go statewide in grades 3-11 in 2015.

He said the most recent district surveys, from late February, indicate that 70 percent are ready, both in terms of the number of devices on hand and the bandwidth to transmit questions and answers.

That leaves close to a third of the districts unprepared, but despite some pointed questions as to whether there was a backup plan, Hespe maintained he was confident that the schools would be ready in time.

“We are developing a contingency, where some could be taking the [first year of the] test in paper and pencil,” Hespe told the committee. “But our expectation remains that every student will be taking it through a computer device.”

Hespe said much of the readiness question has been monitored through an outside firm, North Highland Consulting, hired under a $1 million contract to gauge how schools are preparing for the new exams, which will be administered in math and language arts.

Those exams are being field tested in scores of schools across the state over the next month. So far, reviews have been mixed — both of the exams and of how ready the schools are for online evaluations.

Hespe told the Senate committee that the field tests had so far exceeded expectations, but have not been without their glitches.

“We have identified some problems, but as they arise, they are being resolved,” he said. “Every field test has its problems, that’s why we do them . . . We remain very optimistic that we will be ready.”

The committee also pored over the cost of the new assessments, with the state seeing a one-year spike of more than $11 million in testing costs for next year. This year, the state spent $19.8 million for the state-wide assessments, and Gov. Chris Chris Christie’s budget for fiscal 2015 sees it rising to $30.9 million.

Hespe’s staff said $7 million of the increase is in one-time costs due to the phase-out of the existing high school test, known as the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA), which needs to be given one more year for students who don’t pass this year.

An additional $1 million is for the consultant, they said, and the state will also will be field testing a new kindergarten assessment next year.

The administration has maintained that overall, the new testing under PARCC will not cost any more than current tests, although a final contract with the next test administrator remains to be settled.