Teachers Add Critical Voice to State’s Newly Named Testing Commission

While skeptics worry Christie appointees will rubber-stamp state policy, two named to panel express optimism that dissident voices will be heard

Credit: NJDOE
Acting Commissioner of Education David Hespe.
When Gov. Chris Christie finally appointed his long-promised commission to study New Jersey’s school-testing system, the appointees included two teachers who are hardly big fans of where the state is heading.

While they’re not hard-core dissidents, Freehold Township teacher Tracie Yostpille and Camden County Vocational District’s Matt Stagliano certainly come from the camp that believes New Jersey may be moving too far, too fast.

Stagliano, an English teacher, questions how the testing fits students who don’t fit the typical mold. Yostpille, a social studies teacher, worries that testing-related narrowing of the curriculum will squeeze out subjects like hers.

“We’re not language arts or math,” Yostpille said in an interview yesterday. “We are not a tested subject, and are we a subject that matters anymore?”

The question now is how much their concerns – and the voices of others who have been critical of the state’s testing system — will influence the nine-member Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in New Jersey, which Christie took more than three months to appoint and has little time to get started on its work.

The panel was named on Monday, almost four months after Christie issued an executive order to create the commission as part of a political compromise to fend off efforts to beat back New Jersey’s transition to new, high-stakes testing for both students and teachers.

The group is a diverse one, also including the president of Camden County College, the executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association, the Jersey City schools superintendent, a Burlington County principal, and vice presidents of both the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce and the state PTA.

It will be headed by acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe, who said Monday that the panel will hear from all sides on the issue.

“If anyone wants to be heard, they will be heard,” he said. “It will be a public dialogue on the testing, the time we spend on testing, the uses of multiple tests, and tools we can provide to help.”

He rejected the notion that it’s a foregone conclusion that the commission will back the state’s stance on testing, with the new online PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) tests scheduled to start in the spring.

“We know this is a controversial time, as we move into the first year,” he said. “But the moment is never done. We are always looking to do better as we move forward.’

The commission doesn’t have much time. It is supposed to come up with an interim report by the end of this year and a final report in 2015. Hespe said he hoped to get the group meeting within weeks, and to at least have a set of priorities and procedures – including a schedule of public hearings — in place by the end of December.

The two teachers on the panel were both put forward by the New Jersey Education Association, hardly a close ally of the governor in his five years in office. And neither comes anywhere close to the Christie administration’s company line on testing.

“I talk to a lot of teachers, and they are very frustrated with what is going on,” said Yostpille, who is president of the Freehold Township teachers union and vice president of the NJEA’s Monmouth County affiliate. “There is a level of frustration that I haven’t seen in my 27 years of teaching.”

“It feels very rushed on my end,” said Stagliano, referring to the testing and, specifically, the new PARCC exams.

“While I think it’s a good assessment and aligned with the Common Core, I think because it has been rushed and there is so little definitive information out there, a lot of students and teachers are nervous about it and resistant to it.”

Both spoke of seeking a balance between the value of assessments and the pressures they bring and the time they consume.

“There is a need and value for it, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of evaluating students and teachers,” said Yostpille, herself a parent of a 10th grader.

Stagliano said he has heard the calls for ending, or at least significantly scaling back, the testing.

“Some people are wildly opposed to testing – I’m not like that – but it’s about the reasonable and practice application of all this,” he said.

Both teachers acknowledge there is skepticism in some quarters about how much the new panel will heed the critiques and, in turn, be able to act on them. But they expressed optimism about the commission’s work.

“I do expect something out of this,” said Yostpille. “I hope this is not lip service. I am hoping we will be heard.”

In addition to Hespe and the two teachers, the following members were appointed by Christie to the commission:

  • Nicole Moore Samson, principal, Shamong Township Schools
  • Raymond A. Yannuzzi, president, Camden County College
  • Dana Elizabeth Egreczky, vice president, NJ Chamber of Commerce
  • Lawrence S. Feinsod, executive director, NJ School Boards Association
  • Catherine M. Lindenbaum, vice president, New Jersey PTA
  • Marcia V. Lyles, superintendent of Jersey City schools