While Christie May Back Away From Common Core, Hespe Stands By PARCC Testing

John Mooney | May 28, 2015 | Education
Governor to address ‘academic standards’ in speech today; education chief sounds conciliatory note but still supports controversial online exams

Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
New Jersey’s participation in the Common Core standards and the PARCC tests aligned to them is taking center stage this week.

Gov. Chris Christie is expected to call for more state-based standards. Meanwhile, questions continue to swirl over how the state plans to proceed with the PARCC tests into the future.

Christie’s office yesterday announced that he would be giving a policy speech at Burlington County College today to discuss “academic standards.”

Christie, a likely candidate for the Republican nomination for president, has repeatedly said he has concerns about the nationwide Common Core standards, and it is widely expected he will make at least some move to step away from them.

But how — and how far — are the questions. Few would speculate yesterday about what Christie might say at the invitation-only event.

One source familiar with the governor’s speech said Christie will call for standards developed by and for New Jersey specifically, following the line being pitched by the more conservative wing of the GOP, which believes the Common Core standards represent an overreach by the federal government. Several states – including Arizona, Tennessee and Louisiana — have made such rhetorical retreats, calling at the very least for formal reviews of their participation in Common Core and PARCC.

But the same source also was vague about how Christie’s statement might affect the system now in place in New Jersey — especially the PARCC testing, which started in earnest this spring and is specifically aligned to the Common Core.

While close to a million students in New Jersey have taken the PARCC exams, the testing has generated intense debate, with families of an estimated 50,000 students opting out of the testing overall, and the efficacy of the exams spurring deep disagreement.

In addition, the Common Core – adopted by the state Board of Education in 2010 with Christie’s signature and support – has been the rule in the state’s public schools and its teaching colleges for the last four years, and questions abound over how they would be affected if the state backed away from using those standards.

Providing some clues about what direction the state might take, Education Commissioner David Hespe yesterday spoke to the annual meeting of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, the suburban schools group, and struck a more conciliatory tone than he had in the past while also continuing to stand by PARCC.

Without mentioning the governor’s planned speech today, Hespe tried to defuse concerns that schools with high opt-out numbers would immediately be penalized with the loss of state aid. Several bills that would prohibit such measures have been filed in the Legislature.

Hespe has warned previously that the federal government could impose funding penalties on schools falling below the mandated 95 percent PARCC participation requirements.

[related]But yesterday he stressed that the Christie administration has no such intentions as long as districts aren’t openly defying the state and discouraging participation.

“Let me assure you, no school in this state will lose aid if it didn’t hit a participation number,” Hespe said during his hour-long talk at the Forsgate Country Club in Jamesburg. “That’s not going to happen. You will lose aid, however, if you tell me to go fly a kite and you will not do anything with strategies to improve.”

“So please, let’s keep that straight: I am not going to penalize anybody if not meeting the participation part. As long as we work together, I see this as a very good process moving forward.”

Hespe gave no indication that the state was abandoning the PARCC test, saying that recent changes announced by the nine-state consortium to shorten the test would lead to overall improvements next year.

“In September 2016, it will lead to a much easier administration,” he said.

He also praised school districts for standing by the tests in the face of what he acknowledged was intense opposition. He specifically pointed to “attack ads” sponsored by the New Jersey Education Association, an open critic of the testing.

“There was $10 million in attack ads, and people were listening,” Hespe said. “Education politics is fierce and the last four months was brutal.”

“You should be proud of what you did,” Hespe told the superintendents and school board members in the room. “Not many would have stayed the course, and you did.”