Christie’s Education Talking Points Yield More Questions, Few Clear Answers

John Mooney | January 12, 2016 | Education
Reports on academic standards, PARCC exams and graduation requirements offer some policy tweaks on eve of governor’s speech

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On the eve of Gov. Chris Christie’s State of the State address this afternoon, his administration disclosed at least some of his latest education talking points yesterday, releasing a flurry of reports and presentations addressing some critical issues.

It was a lot to digest in one day, but the State Board of Education yesterday heard from the administration about proposals for new state standards, new testing philosophies, and new high school graduation requirements.

For good measure, it threw in a proposed Department of Education reorganization, of sorts, and finally some new data, albeit incomplete, on the number of students who didn’t take the new PARCC tests last spring.

In the end, there were just a few takeaways relevant to Christie’s address today, but the proposals will certainly get a closer look in the weeks and months ahead.

Christie’s disavowal of the Common Core standards didn’t amount to much.

Last May, the governor announced that New Jersey was backing out of the Common Core State Standards, the national benchmarks that the state adopted back in 2010 with Christie’s blessing.

When he made that announcement last spring, observers didn’t miss noting that Christie was running for the GOP presidential nomination — and that the conservative voters he was courting aren’t big fans of any kind of national standards.

Christie announced at the time that the state would review the standards and ways to improve them. Yesterday, the leaders of the various committees charged with that task released their recommendations. They were not inconsequential – and there were more than 230 recommendations in all.

But it was hardly big stuff. Among the most notable proposed changes is moving the learning of long vowels from second to first grade. And the new standards will have a new name – the New Jersey Student Learning Standards.

New Jersey is sticking with PARCC.

After all the to-do about the new online state testing, a second task force has recommended that New Jersey stay the course with the PARCC exams.

Its report includes more than 40 recommendations, including a new study commission to keep track of the PARCC and other standardized tests. It also called for closer monitoring of other commercial tests and said the state should provide more guidelines for schools faced with the pressures of “teaching to the test.”

But the basics didn’t change much.

And later in the day the administration released some striking but ambiguous numbers on the percentage of students who sat out the PARCC exams last spring.

The new data showed that the biggest opt-out rates were in the high schools, with as many as a quarter of students at some schools sitting out the tests for one reason or another. The report also found that more than half of students missing the tests were at schools in fewer than 100 districts.

The administration also stressed that students had a number of reasons for skipping the PARCC exams beyond protesting the testing. Some, for instance, didn’t need to take the tests because other assessment options were available.

But officials still haven’t released statewide totals or overall percentages for how many students didn’t take the tests.

Class of 2021 will face new graduation requirements – which have yet to be determined.

Under the administration’s plan, today’s seventh-graders – the class of 2021 — will be the first class in the state to face new graduation requirements tied directly to the PARCC assessments.

Under a proposal released yesterday, the state would require those students to pass the PARCC 10th grade language arts test and its Algebra I math test, typically given in eighth or ninth grade.

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Until then, a range of pathways to graduation – in addition to passing the PARCC tests — will still be available to students, including achieving minimum scores on the SAT or ACT. Another option will be a “portfolio appeal” process that allows students to show they have attained the required knowledge. Such an appeals process would be included in future plans as well.

But many questions will arise in the coming months as the State Board reviews the proposal. How many students, for example, will be precluded from graduating even this year even with the more flexible options? What happens if a student doesn’t pass the PARCC exams now?

And hovering over the entire testing issues is a lawsuit, pending in the state administrative courts, challenging the fairness of the process as it stands now.