Fate Uncertain for Bills Aimed at Slowing Down Switch to New State Testing

John Mooney | May 29, 2014 | Education
The administration is moving ahead with its implementation of PARCC, but may be open to a change in how it’s used

Credit: Amanda Brown
Assembly Higher Education Committee Chairwoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex and Morris).
It’s a big question in New Jersey education circles these days: What is happening with legislation and other efforts to slow down the full implementation of new online testing and the attendant educator evaluations.

And the short answer at this point appears to be — stay tuned.

The chief sponsor of the bill in the Assembly said yesterday that she is still hopeful it will be posted for a full vote in the lower chamber, even after it was passed over for the last voting session.

“I would hope to have it posted,” said state Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex) yesterday. “I think there are a lot of people who would like to see it happen.”

And the likely sponsor of a companion bill in the Senate said he, too, had high hopes — but also wasn’t sure next steps.

“I’d like to see at least a discussion about it,” said state Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May).

But there does not seem to be much wavering from the Christie administration, at least for the time being, raising doubts as to whether a bill, if ever passed, would have a chance of being signed by Gov. Chris Christie.

Acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe said yesterday that the state’s hands are largely tied in its commitment to the federal government to both start the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) testing and including results in teacher evaluations by next year.

“The timelines for pursing PARCC and the evaluations were pretty much set in the waiver [signed to be released from No Child Left Behind), and local districts also accepted stimulus funds [with the commitment],” Hespe said in an interview.

Still, Hespe said he was also cognizant of the growing calls to slow down from legislators and advocates, not to mention letter-writing campaigns and petitions, and said he was open to revisiting the issue as more information became available next fall once the first test results were coming in.

‘We are certainly open in the future to be flexible, if the facts and data call for it,” he said. “But at this point, that would be premature.”

It’s been an issue rising to a slow boil for several months: the implications of new testing tied to the Common Core State Standards combined with new teacher evaluation systems that will rely on those results for grading certain teachers.

Meanwhile, the state’s dominant teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association is calling for the delay in the use of current student test results, even before PARCC begins.

Others have focused their protests on PARCC itself, saying the new exam is untested and it is only putting greater burdens on schools to administer it.

In New Jersey and elsewhere, an interesting coalition of critics has been called into existence. Both the NJEA and other liberal advocates are in opposition from the left while more conservative voices are joining them, contending that the federal government and its policies should stay out of local education altogether.

The bill championed by Jasey and passed unanimously by the Assembly education committee earlier this month won backing from both Democrats and Republicans on the committee.

It would allow the new testing to proceed, but would call for an Education Reform Review Task Force to assess and analyze the implementation of both PARCC and the new Common Core standards before the results were used to evaluate teachers, principals, or schools as a whole.

It has become a big enough topic that assistant commissioner Bari Erlichson yesterday devoted her talk before the Garden State Coalition of Schools, a suburban schools group, to a defense of the state’s timelines as laid out for the federal government.

The commitments, she and other officials have said, came in the state’s waiver request to the federal Department of Education three years ago to move away from the requirements of No Child Left Behind.

Instead of the path under NCLB that was increasingly labeling schools as “in need of improvement’ and facing corrective actions, the state’s waiver called for a four-tier system of accountability that ranged from “priority” schools with the greatest needs to “reward” schools with the fewest.

As part of that waiver approval, however, the federal government was demanding the new testing be in place next year, including student results being a “significant factor” in the evaluation of teachers.

But that has been where the debate has taken place: what constitutes “significant.”

Under former Commissioner Chris Cerf, student progress on the state tests would be no more than 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. Some advocates have sought to significantly reduce that share in the first years, possibly a step that is taken by regulation or administrative action rather than legislation.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chairman of the Senate education committee and author of the teacher evaluation and tenure law, said she would be open to pursuing a number of options in addressing the concerns, including possibly through regulations.

Jasey said her goal doesn’t have to be met through legislation, and she is open to other means.

“My goal is only to have [the delay] happen,” she said yesterday. “If there is a way to get at that through regulation, I would support any channel we take.”

That leaves the situation pretty fluid at this point, with no clear resolution in sight. State Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly education committee, yesterday maintained that the political support is behind Jasey’s bill.

“I think everyone realizes we need to get a handle on this,” he said. “And it is definitely time sensitive. But [the committee] did our part., it’s up to the rest now.”