Education Commissioner Offers Forceful Defense of New PARCC Testing

Hespe tells Senate panel participation is high despite ‘opt-out’ campaign, which he says is largely fueled by misinformation

Credit: Amanda Brown
State Education Commissioner David Hespe
For more than two hours, state Education Commissioner David Hespe yesterday gave a full-scale defense of the PARCC testing that has stirred so much debate in New Jersey.

Speaking for the first time before the state Senate education committee, the commissioner said the PARCC launch has gone well so far, adding that participation was “very strong” even in the face of a statewide “opt-out” movement, although he gave no specific numbers.

The technology for the new online tests – which Hespe himself had expressed concerns about – has been working as planned, he said.

As for widespread concerns about the PARCC tests in general, Hespe suggested those views were based more on “misinformation” than facts.

“I am proud that on a typical day, 250,000 children are taking the tests in New Jersey,” Hespe said. “In fact, in the last few days, it has been closer to 275,000 children who have been going online and successfully completing the tests.

“Two weeks in, it is going very well,” he said.

While his own testimony was sometimes short on hard data, the commissioner and his chief lieutenant on the issue, assistant commissioner Bari Erlichson, appeared to provide enough testimony to assuage a restive Legislature and buy some political time for the embattled standardized tests.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the committee chair, said afterward that she would take up some of the anti-PARCC bills that have moved through the Legislature, including proposals dealing with privacy and keeping the tests out of the earliest grades.

But even those bills appear unlikely to be addressed anytime soon, with the state budget review about to start, and Ruiz suggested that more controversial PARCC-related bills are even less likely to see quick action.

One bill passed overwhelmingly by the Assembly would delay use of the new testing in school or teacher evaluations for three years. Another, still pending in the Assembly, would set up a statewide policy for families choosing to have their children sit out the new tests.

Ruiz did not address specific bills, but she praised Hespe’s presentation and said the state needs to proceed with setting higher standards for its students. Still, she echoed Hespe in saying that concerns will be revisited as the testing moves further along.

“Throughout these efforts, there will be pauses to see if the exam was rolled out properly,” she said. “Change is difficult, and we need to be sure to get as much information out as possible.”

Notably absent from any discussion was the Common Core State Standards that provide the benchmarks for the new testing – and which have been questioned by Hespe’s boss, Gov. Chris Christie. Hespe was not asked about that potential conflict, nor did he offer any new insights.

There was much discussion about the opt-out movement. While no hard data has been provided, Hespe said the highest number of students sitting out the tests appears to be at the high-school level.

“Some of the high school participation is definitely a problem” he said.

He and Erlichson confronted the opt-out movement head-on.

Repeating a frequent argument, Hespe said those families and teachers were missing out on knowing how their children and their students are progressing in school.

Erlichson gave an impassioned plea in which she warned that the opt-out movement could also hurt New Jersey schools.

The department released a letter from the U.S. Department of Education official that reinforced that the state had committed to the new testing and to meeting federal guidelines requiring that at least 95 percent of students take the tests.

State officials have said that districts and schools with high opt-out numbers could lose federal funds. The letter released yesterday, while vaguely worded, reinforced that concern.

“This requirement does not permit certain students or a specific percentage of students to be excluded from assessments,” wrote Deborah Delisle, the federal assistant education secretary. “Rather, it sets out the rule that all students in tested grades must be assessed.”

Erlichson was more vehement, stressing repeatedly that New Jersey schools could lose federal funds.

“Parents are being misled that there are no consequences for schools,” she said. “Nothing in our (federal waiver) ever changed our testing requirements or the consequences for individual schools in meeting those testing requirements.”

“There are consequences,” she repeated.

The comments drew the ire of a handful of PARCC critics who attended the hearing, which several maintaining that Erlichson was misrepresenting the federal government’s intentions and expressing doubt that schools would ever be penalized for the actions of parents who pull their children out of the testing.

They maintained no district elsewhere in the country had been ever penalized for high numbers of test refusals, including a number of districts in New York State last year.

‘The guidance is vague and has words like ‘may’ and ‘possibly’,” said Susan Cauldwell, executive director of the nonprofit arm of the grassroots group Save Our Schools.

“In no certain terms did it say that (district) will lose money,” Cauldwell said. “I think the idea that federal Department of Education would come after New Jersey is ridiculous.”

She and others also complained that Ruiz had not allowed other stakeholders to speak during the hearing.

“This was just a venue for the department to come forward with their message and not addressing the concerns that so many people have,” said Sean Spiller, secretary of the New Jersey Education Association, which has launched an advertising campaign against the spread of standardized tests.

“There was a real opportunity to engage in that conversation,” Spiller added, “and unfortunately, that didn’t happen.”

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