New Testing Policies Slowly Take Shape in Slew of Education Department Memos

John Mooney | September 10, 2015 | Education
Disgruntled families take department to court, claiming it did not follow proper procedure for setting and vetting policy

testing online
Seeking to serve political as well as educational ends, the Christie administration yesterday sent a flurry of back-to-school memos to districts, clarifying how student testing will work this year for those who sit for the exams — and those who don’t.

For starters, the administration released the long-promised guidance on how districts are to deal with students who refuse to take the tests, a sizable but still-undisclosed number in last spring’s launch of the online PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) exams.

The instructions were the product of a compromise with Democratic legislative leaders last spring, whose members in the throes of the opt-out movement threatened to move legislation that could have suspended the use of the new tests altogether.

The new guidance is not strongly prescriptive. For example, it said districts should provide an alternative setting for students refusing the tests and should not require them to sit still through the testing, in what is dubbed a “sit and stare” policy.

“Legislators asked us to put it out at the beginning of the school year, and that’s what we’re doing,” said state Education Commissioner David Hespe yesterday. “It’s heavy on communication, and how districts are to communicate with their communities and parents.”

In addition, the administration yesterday also sought to assuage concerns about the use of the new testing as part of the state’s high school graduation requirements.

In a separate memo sent to districts, Hespe said that for the incoming class of freshmen — the Class of 2019 — the state would continue for another year its current policy of using PARCC as only one possible gateway to meet the graduation requirement.

Others include minimum scores on the SAT or ACT college entrance exams or other alternative measures, as well as a one-to-one appeals process.

That policy has been subject of intense debate, now moving to the courts. A group of families last week filed a lawsuit, TB et al v. NJ Department of Education, that contends the state is dictating the requirements without going through the statutory public process and also failing to adequately notify schools and families of what is required of them.

Hespe said in an interview that with the PARCC testing new to the state and the scores still not released, it was prudent to hold off for at least another year from making the tests a prime graduation requirement. A state commission looking at student testing statewide is also soon to release its recommendations.

“Since we don’t have the PARCC scores yet and the assessment commission is still out there, we thought we shouldn’t get ahead of either of those,” he said.

Nonetheless, the move hardly calmed the critics who said the state had again failed to go through the regulatory process that is required, preventing public input and the full vetting of the state’s practices.

“You can’t do this by memo,” said Jessica Levin, an attorney with the Education Law Center, the advocacy group that is representing the families in the complaint. “Just issuing a memo on a broad policy like this doesn’t comply with the law.”

The American Civil Liberties Union New Jersey is also representing the families.

Levin said it is a matter of setting consistent practices for districts that prevent the kind of mixed messages that students and families say they have been receiving.

“The required regulatory process provides for notice and an opportunity for the public to respond to the substantive issues raised by the proposed policies,” she said in a subsequent email. “It’s a matter of fairness to families and students and adherence to the law.”

The new guidance also provides little detail on how the appeals process would work for those who miss the cut-off and whether it would be tied to PARCC or other assessments.

In yet one more memo, the state added a new twist to the high-school testing issue, saying it would allow student to be exempt from the 11th grade language-arts PARCC if they took the corresponding Advanced Placement or International baccalaureate tests.

“We’re going to take every opportunity to cut down on testing time, and this was one opportunity to do that,” Hespe said.

The exemption would only apply to 11th grade language arts, and not the new math tests or the other reading and writing tests in ninth and 10th grades.