Hespe Stands Firm on PARCC in Face of Tough Questions from School Principals

John Mooney | March 23, 2015 | Education
Promises to weigh impact of ‘opt-outs’ on assessment of teachers and schools, but asserts that new testing will prove its worth

Credit: Grace Moylan, NJPSA
NJ Commissioner of Education David Hespe
They’re school principals and vice principals, and they deal daily with the much-debated new PARCC tests – and state Education Commissioner David Hespe met them face-to-face on Friday.

It was a tough crowd.

Hespe, speaking at the annual legislative conference of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, gave a lengthy defense of the new testing and the data it will provide to schools.

But it’s been principals and their staff who have had to deal directly with PARCC’s impact — and the tensions were especially telling in a question-and-answer session, when a couple of administrators spoke candidly about problems caused by the testing, as well as by the disputes and debates surrounding it.

The first was Jennifer Lowe, principal of a Delran elementary school, who told Hespe of the daily impact of students who are sitting out the test.

The state’s largest teachers union has estimated that close to 30,000 students statewide have so far opted out of PARCC. At Lowe’s school, which has children in third grade through fifth grade, about a quarter of the students have been kept out of the testing by their parents. Lowe expressed concern about what message that sends to the other three-quarters of her students and about the overall impact on how the school is judged.

“Even of the students taking the assessment, I have third-grade children who are vocally saying they just clicking through the answers because the test is not important, as evidenced by the fact that one in four children are not taking it,” she said.

“My school is still going to be judged on our effectiveness by the state,” Lowe continued. “Even though the (full participation of students) will not be there, we will have data reported, and we are finding it is not our underachieving students who are opting out, but that 80 percent of those who are advanced proficient or very high.

“My concern is what will the state do to address this reality that is impacting our schools and how we will be evaluated,” she told the commissioner.

Hespe acknowledged it was “troubling to hear that third-grade students are going in there with this embedded knowledge that this test was not important.”

Dodging Lowe’s point, he suggested that the blame may rest with adults who might be imparting that attitude to their children.

Still, Hespe pledged to look at the test results and how opt-out numbers could impact a school’s evaluation.

“We will look at that issue,” he said. “It is an issue that is on our radar screen.”

It didn’t stop there. The next speaker was Aaron Eyler, an assistant principal at Piscataway High School, who questioned Hespe’s contention that the state was taking a gradual approach to evaluating teachers based on their students’ performance on the new tests.

Hespe has repeatedly said that just one-fifth of the state’s teachers will be judged in part by their students’ PARCC results next year, and that it will count for just 10 percent of their evaluations in the first year and 20 percent in the second.

But Eyler said even if scores are small piece of the evaluations, it is little comfort when there’s still so much uncertainty about the new tests.

“Every teacher, whether they are great or average, will care what that number is,” he said. “Telling them that you will address the issue of students who are just clicking through or opting out, that’s not good enough for them.”

“‘They care about their scores are going to be,” Eyler added. ‘We can say it’s just 10 percent or we’ll review it, but I think we need a consistent message that we know teachers care about your score. There is no teacher that doesn’t care about their score.”

Hespe tried to assuage those concerns, saying that early results from last year’s evaluations indicated that the test score data for teachers did not vary significantly more subjective ways to assessing teachers, such as classroom evaluations.

“I think a lot of your concerns will go away,” Hespe said. “But we will have a great dialogue on that issue. It is on our minds, as it is on your minds.”

The commissioner, whose tenure as commissioner in the late 1990s coincided with the advent of new elementary school tests, said he recalled some of the same debates taking place back then.

“We know the pushback, we know the controversy,” Hespe said. “But we also know this is the right thing to do, and it may take a few years to get where we want to go. … If in two or three years we re not there, come yell at me as much as you want. But I do believe we will get there.’