Gov. Phil Murphy’s new education commissioner yesterday put out the first official word on what’s next with student testing in New Jersey: an advisory group and a listening tour.
Following through on Murphy’s pledge to end high-stakes PARCC testing, acting Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet informed districts that he would be forming an advisory group to study ideas for the next generation of testing, as well as a tour of every county to hear from students and teachers.
He indicated a review of graduation requirements tied to the testing would also be included in that review.
“The NJDOE is committed to fulfilling the Governor’s call to transition away from and to improve upon the current system of PARCC assessments,” the memo read.
“This will occur in a thoughtful, deliberative process to ensure compliance with state and federal law, smooth school and district operational transitions and, most importantly, in a manner that is most beneficial and least disruptive to the students whom we serve,” the memo added.
No overnight changes
Repollet also acknowledged none of this will happen overnight, with a host of issues to be considered beyond just statutory and regulatory changes. Any action will not affect this spring’s administration of PARCC, he added, as that testing cycle is already committed and underway.
“There are many issues to take into consideration when transitioning an assessment system, including the amount of time needed to procure a new vendor, the fiscal and operational impact of assessments, and continued alignment to our New Jersey Student Learning Standards,” he said in the memo to districts.
“Additionally,” the memo read, “as state and federal law require all states to use assessments as one method to gauge and compare progress of students and student groups and to evaluate how schools support learning, we need to ensure our next generation of assessments provides a fair and accurate picture of student progress toward the mastery of the skills we expect them to achieve.”
Repollet’s memo did not put a timetable on the process, other than saying there would be a “transition plan” developed out of the advisory group’s work and public testimony.
“In the meantime, the current statewide assessments, as well as federal and state accountability and graduation requirements, all remain in effect until further notified of changes in the regulations,” it read.
A time of uncertainty
The memo comes at a time of uncertainty about what Murphy would do regarding the controversial PARCC testing. He vowed in his campaign to end it “day one,” but questions arose immediately about the feasibility and practicality of such an immediate move — not to mention the politics of an issue where there is hardly consensus.
One key player will be the State Board of Education, which was expected to take public testimony on the topic at its monthly meeting today before it was cancelled due to the weather. The board will need to sign off on any changes to the state’s testing regimen.
Board President Arcelio Aponte last night said he hoped the process will be a deliberate one and the state will be “thoughtful to any changes to PARCC.”
Aponte said he is not against the testing itself nor its stakes, although is open to the concerns he’s heard from districts.
“What I’ve heard from most is not a problem with the assessment tool itself, but the implementation of it and the time that it takes,” he said in an interview. “More an administrative challenge than quality of the tool itself. In fact, most think it superior to what we had previously in NJASK.”
Real gains from PARCC
“We’ve invested considerably in PARCC, and I think that investment is showing some real gains in many districts. There is a lot to acknowledge in terms of gains that we can’t simply dismiss.”
But the test has been loudly protested as well, with critics contending it is not a strong measure of performance, and in both its administration and test-preparation, it takes too much time away from more useful instruction.
The stakes attached to the test have drawn especially loud criticism, especially the coming requirements that students pass at least some portion to graduate. Those requirements are currently under challenge in state appellate court for violating existing state statute.
The shift to the test three years ago sparked one of the nation’s most active “opt-out” protests among students, although that has since calmed down considerably.
Before the administration’s memo was put out, a group of families connected with Save Our Schools NJ, the parent-led advocacy group, were expected to testify today at the State Board meeting about the lack of action so far on Murphy’s pledge.
Last night, leaders in the group said they looked forward to Repollet’s planned process and being involved.
“Save Our Schools NJ stands ready to participate on any committee that will develop a replacement for PARCC,” said Julie Borst, director of SOS NJ community organizing.
“We are confident the new administration will seriously consider the concerns that parents have raised over the past four years. We look forward to collaborating with a NJDOE that will put the needs of students first.”
Stan Karp, program director with the Education Law Center, which is leading the legal challenge, said he also appreciates that the administration is moving forward.
“The ELC welcomes the commissioner’s update and the concern expressed for ensuring ‘compliance with state and federal law,’” Karp said in an email. “We also note the graduation regulations imposed by the Christie Administration violate NJ law and face a legal challenge from parent and civil rights groups pending in the Appellate Division. We hope the Administration will move quickly to address those violations.”