Analysis: Christie’s Options Limited When It Comes to Plans for PARCC Testing

John Mooney | July 9, 2014 | Education
The governor has hinted publicly at a compromise on new PARCC tests, but what will he do and when will he do it?

When Gov. Chris Christie made a comment last month at one of his town-hall-style meetings about a compromise concerning the new PARCC exams, he sparked off a guessing game.

What would the governor propose for the controversial rollout of the online national tests? How would that fit with the Legislature’s apparent intent to press a long review — and delay — on the impact of the new tests? And when would Christie actually come forward with his compromise?

At stake is an important measurement of how thousands of teachers and hundreds of schools will be judged next year with the advent of the online Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers tests, which are tied to the Common Core State Standards.

Since Christie’s comment, the key players have been quiet about the ongoing talks concerning a compromise. One of those who has been keeping his own counsel is acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe, the man who will ultimately have to implement PARCC and any compromise.

But the options are pretty well known to those following the ongoing saga, with the key ingredients sure to include some kind of high-level review of student testing and at least some adjustment of the weights such testing will have on how teachers and schools are judged — at least for the time being.

Task Force to Come

There is little disagreement in the Legislature over calls for a state task force to take a hard look at the launch of the new testing.

The bill now in the Senate and passed the Assembly by an overwhelming and bipartisan majority calls for a new Education Reform Review Task Force of 15 members to look at the impact of the testing before any consequences are tied to it. The bill says such a review could take up to two years, effectively delaying the consequences until 2018.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the influential chair of the Senate education committee, has separately called for a group to study all standardized testing in the schools. Her bill does not call for any postponement of the use of the testing in teacher evaluations.

But whichever is chosen or if another path is taken altogether, the details of that review is where the disagreements may arise. Will it look at all testing or just PARCC? What would be the powers of the task force once that review is completed?

And would the task force be appointed from the various stakeholder groups, as dictated by the legislative bills, with certain responsibility to the governor and the Legislature?

Under the approved Assembly bill now in the Senate, the Education Reform Review Task Force would be 15 members, nine appointed by the governor — including the commissioner — and six by the Legislature.

Under Ruiz’s bill, the task force would number 16 members, with a similar breakdown, but more explicit direction on which associations and groups would be represented.

How much will the tests count?

The other key question is how much — or if — the administration will bend on the plans to use student progress on state tests to count for as much as 30 percent of the evaluation for teachers in testing grades and subjects.

In the first year, that’s teachers of math and language arts in grades 4-8, but the numbers will grow with PARCC becoming an annual test for grades 3-11.

The Christie administration has contended that the state is required under federal regulations tied to its waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act to base a “significant” portion of teachers’ evaluations on student achievement.

But the question is how to define “significant,” and whether it could be reduced to 20 percent or even 10 percent while the tests are launched — either one a figure large enough to be a factor in a teacher’s rating, but small enough not be the determining one.

The likeliest path in any compromise would include some kind of executive order from the governor, and legislators have said as much publicly. But there is also the possibility of state regulation changes before the State Board of Education, a slower process. Nothing is so far planned for today’s meeting of the board, and it doesn’t meet for another month after that.

The timing

That has been the biggest question since Christie’s remarks in Haddonfield: when would he make the announcement?

Before that, Hespe had long said that he hoped no final decisions would come until the fall, when the first results on the existing testing’s impact on teacher ratings are available.

But the Legislature has appeared to move up that timetable with its actions on the PARCC bill, and there is a clear sense among observers some action would come this week.

Of course, that is what many of them said last week, too, but the state Senate has already twice put off a vote on the bill in deference to the governor’s plans, and its leaders have said it may not do so a third time when it meets Thursday.