The debate and rancor that greeted New Jersey’s flawed implementation of the PARCC test four years ago have in many ways receded. Over time, adjustments have been made which have improved the test and how it’s utilized to help families and schools achieve better educational outcomes. That doesn’t mean the debate is over or that there isn’t room for more changes, but it also cannot mean that we move backward in the name of simplicity and comfort.
Recently, the Murphy administration put forward its vision for statewide assessments in grades 3-12. This vision came after state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet’s stakeholder engagement featuring the stories and voices of parents, teachers and advocates. These personal anecdotes and experiences are critical to formulating a new assessment policy, but they cannot be the exclusive grounds upon which decisions are made. Solid achievement data, educational evidence, and a detailed plan for what comes next for New Jersey’s 1. 37 million public-school students must carry equal weight.
The goal of an assessment policy is to build objective accountability for learning into the system. It is to enable a parent in Newark to understand how their child and their school are performing as easily as a parent in Ridgewood. It is to enable teachers to understand where their students are struggling, whether as individuals or as a class or a grade, and for administrators to design solutions to those learning needs. It is to enable us as a society to know whether our schools are meeting the challenge of preparing the kids who graduate to go to college or to a career without requiring remedial work. The goal of assessments isn’t to make sure everyone passes or that everyone is comfortable.
The discussion prompted by the Murphy administration’s new proposal is welcome and we should embrace the opportunity to do better. However, the current proposal needs further refinement and analysis before it should be adopted.
Losing important information about how kids are doing
Of particular concern are the proposed changes that would eliminate four of the six state assessments given in high school. These proposed changes decrease access to data, like student performance, at critical points along a student’s educational journey. These changes also eradicate important information parents would normally gather from consistent PARCC data; like, is my child on track for college and career? This restricts data to a point where we may not accurately track how student subgroups are performing compared to their peers (such as, for parents in chronically underperforming district — is my student’s A the same as an A earned in an affluent district like Millburn?) Essentially, we would undermine the accountability system constructed to protect our most vulnerable students. PARCC and the data collected are an integral part of making sure the educational needs of all students across the state are being met.
The impact of the inequitable distribution of high quality public education is most acutely felt after high school. National research shows that two- and four-year colleges — and employers — are increasingly dissatisfied with the level of mastery of academic content. Another national study indicated 62 percent of employers stated that high schools are not adequately preparing students for the work world.
New Jersey’s African-American and Latino students, and students from low-income families, bear the brunt of this reality. They enroll in remedial coursework at the highest percentages, their average graduation rates at New Jersey’s two-year colleges is 16.3 percent, with completion rates for Hispanics at 10.6 percent and 6.5 percent for African-Americans. And, while 42 percent of New Jersey students graduate college in four years, only 24 percent of African-Americans and Hispanics students do.
It is important to evaluate the effectiveness of our state’s assessment and high school graduation requirements, but let’s keep the right goal in mind. Our objective must be to graduate more students from high school academically prepared either to attend college or to enter the workforce, not simply make it easier and less stressful to graduate.