While Education Simmers in D.C., NJ Quietly Puts Together Its ESSA Proposal

John Mooney | February 16, 2017 | Education
The state puts the finishing touches to its plan for implementing Every Student Succeeds Act, looks for public comment

Long before there was President Donald Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, there was a new federal policy for public education called Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

The law, signed last year by former President Barack Obama, shifted away from many of the top-down strictures of the famous — some would say infamous — No Child Left Behind Act. Instead, it gives the states wide discretion to come up with their own accountability standards and other strategies for schools.

How much of that will survive under the Trump administration is open to question, but yesterday, after months of hearings and testimony, New Jersey released the first draft of its plan to implement the new law — incorporating some expected and not-so-expected changes.

ESSA requires that the state look at not just student performance on a given test, but also growth on those same tests. As expected, New Jersey indicated that it is meeting that requirement with its PARCC testing.

Growth is a big theme in both the new federal law and the state’s proposal, each applying it to graduation rates and English language proficiency.

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The state made no move away from its controversial PARCC testing, despite some leeway under the federal law to do so. In fact, the state added that PARCC testing would now be standard from Grades 3 all the way to Grade 11.

Critics of PARCC found plenty to dislike. “From the outset, [the Christie administration] made it clear that PARCC was non-negotiable,” said Susan Cauldwell, executive director of Save Our Schools NJ Community Organizing, the parent advocacy group’s nonprofit.

“It’s hard to understand why the DOE continues to push this flawed test,” she said. “In our opinion, this plan relies too heavily on PARCC.”

Under ESSA, the state is allowed to come up with additional measures of success for schools and districts, beyond the traditional ones based on student test results and graduation rates.

The Christie administration proposed adding student attendance as a key measure, or what it called “chronic absenteeism” of students missing at least 10 percent of the year.

“Chronic absenteeism provides important information about a school’s culture and climate,” read the state’s proposal. “In addition, it is widely acknowledged that students who are not in school do not learn.”

“Students who are chronically absent in both kindergarten and first grade are much less likely to be reading at grade level by third grade,” it continued. “In addition, high school attendance is a better dropout indicator than test scores. Finally, a student who is chronically absent for any year between eighth and 12th grade is more than seven times more likely to drop out of school.”

The state also added some variations to other traditional measures. For instance, high schools would not only be measured by their four-year graduation rates, but also by their five-year rates for those who need more time to earn their diplomas.

The proposal is now up for public review until March 20, and the administration invited further public comment. The plan is to then put the final proposal before the federal Department of Education in April, for approval by July.

“We appreciate the tremendous input parents, educators, students, and broader community members from across the state provided us as we developed this proposed plan, and we want more of the public to join us in the conversation by providing their comments,” said acting Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington.