Can This Really Be the End for NJASK in Garden State’s Schools?

John Mooney | May 7, 2014 | Education
In its last iteration, the state's decade-old test is serving as a transition to PARCC and Common Core

test in progress
After nearly a decade as New Jersey’s main state test for public schools, the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge — known simply as “NJASK” — is taking its final bow this month.

The test is underway this week in more than 2,000 elementary and middle schools, with students from grades 3 to 8 sitting through four days of language arts and math evaluations.

And that will pretty much be it for the venerable NJASK.

Next year, the state moves to a new generation of online testing with its own acronym: PARCC. (It stands for the Partnership of Assessment for the Readiness of College and Careers, a consortium of 16 participating states, plus Washington, D.C.)

But even as NJASK is phased out, it will continue to ease the transition to the Common Core State Standards, the guiding principles of the new PARCC tests.

These changes are readily apparent in the grades 6 to 8 math sections. Grades 6 and 7, for example, will concentrate more on ratios and relationships. Grade 8 will focus more on mathematical functions.

The math sections in the other grades, as well as the language arts tests for all grades, have already been aligned with the Common Core, part of an extended transition that started in 2010, when the state adopted the new standards. But these sections will continue to be tweaked and tuned with new questions aligned to the Common Core.

And for all the debate about PARCC, which is being field tested in New Jersey this spring, NJASK has had its share of critics over the years as well.

In its very first iteration in 1999, the fourth-grade test then called the Elementary School Proficiency Assessment (ESPA) was greeted with disbelief when just a third of the students passed in language arts.

Over the years, the slow return of NJASK scores well into the summer break further frustrated teachers and other educators who wondered how they could use the results to help teach students no longer in their classes.

At the same time, NJASK results were the chief tool to judge schools under the No Child Left Behind Act, a level of accountability not seen before in New Jersey or elsewhere.

It was the start in earnest of the standards and testing movement that continues to this day, with the last round of NJASK scores being used in the first statewide evaluation of teachers.

NJASK was also the first test to be greeted by public protests, as a fledgling movement of parents and families decided to opt out of the tests.

State officials this week said the move from NJASK to PARCC is a natural progression, moving away from the broad measures of school accountability to closer tracking of student performance and teacher practice.

“NJASK was a great test to serve the purpose that it was designed for,” said Bari Erlichson, the assistant state commissioner overseeing the state’s $21 million testing regimen. “But as a tool to guide instructional practice, it hasn’t fulfilled that purpose well.”

There will be one NJASK holdover after this year, although its days are also likely numbered.

NJASK’s science test — given to just fourth and eighth graders — is set to continue in some form next year, state officials said, as PARCC is not planning a science section. Federal regulation requires a science test in at least one grade each of elementary, middle, and high schools, and officials said the state plans to seek proposals for a new exam in the coming months.