In Surprise Move, State Board Tables Vote on Cutting Back PARCC

John Mooney, Education writer | September 13, 2018 | Education
Board president and education commissioner say more discussion needed, but some wonder if there were enough votes to make the change

Arcelio Aponte, president, state Board of Education
Pulling the plug on PARCC was expected to be a foregone conclusion — and something that would get done in short order.

After all, Gov. Phil Murphy promised repeatedly in his campaign that once elected PARCC would be history. His education commissioner moved on that promise, announcing that the PARCC name would be jettisoned. And use of the contentious test would be significantly reduced, starting this year.

Then came yesterday, and suddenly it’s “Maybe not so fast.”

Expected to essentially give the nod to getting rid of PARCC, the state Board of Education yesterday took the unusual step of holding off the vote that would have limited the online test in high school and lessened reliance on it as a graduation exit exam.

Board president Arcelio Aponte joined Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet in announcing at the opening of the monthly meeting that the issue needed more discussion, and the board would postpone the vote until next month.

Not enough votes to carry the day?

And while few would say so outright, it was clear that the proposal didn’t have the votes or it would be very close, something the Murphy administration surely wouldn’t want to risk.

“There was still a lot of questions from the board members, and a lot of information the department still needed to provide us,” Aponte said afterward in an interview. “I can’t say where the vote was going to land.”

Still, Aponte said there wasn’t going to be a long delay, and he hoped the board would vote next month and give districts enough time to adjust their plans for this school year — if the motion carries.

“I will say the discussions are beneficial to the board and the department,” he said. “I don’t know where we are going to land at the next board meeting … At some point, we are going to have to take a vote, and either way, the districts will have our decision and we’ll move on.”

A heritage of unhappiness

The issue has been one of the most bitterly contested to come before the board in years, dating back to PARCC’s implementation under former Gov. Chris Christie.

Just as there was significant pushback about implementing the new online tests and raising the stakes for students and teachers, there has been equally vociferous debate as Murphy has sought to scale PARCC back.

Credit: NJTV News screenshot
PARCC test
Specifically, the administration wants to eliminate two of the three years of testing in high school — including for geometry and Algebra 2 — and provide more paths for students to graduate without passing the tests. There would be the same number of elementary and middle school tests, although they would be shorter and provide less data on students.

Separately, the administration also virtually eliminated the use of the testing as a measure for teacher evaluations for this year.

Mounting tension

The tension was evident yesterday by the size of the crowd at the department’s headquarters, and the appearance of a few State House celebrities not often seen at the meetings, including Murphy’s education advisor Cary Booker and state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the powerful chair of the Senate education committee.

In fact, it was Ruiz’s first time speaking at a state board meeting in her 12 years in office, she said, and it proved a momentous one. She has been critical of the proposed changes, saying PARCC testing was an important gauge of student and teacher performance. She sponsored the teacher tenure reforms that included the testing as a measure.

Yesterday, she greeted the announcement of a delayed vote with an “amen,” as she stood to speak to the board and air her concerns. Afterward, she said further deliberation was welcomed, and her committee would be holding a hearing next Monday to hear directly from Repollet and the administration.

“I think this gives us an opportunity to come up with the best plan,” Ruiz said in an interview. “I’m in favor of change all the time. We should be changing the mark. But it should be moving it up, and not staying in one place or even lowering the bar.”

“These policies that were being made were based on the high-performing high school student, and not the students that I necessarily represent,” she said. “By taking those testing components out, we are losing the windows of opportunity to have a deep view of where the child is learning.”

NJEA disappointed with delay

But there were equally clear expressions of regret with the delay, including from top officers of the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union that has been PARCC’s chief critic since its inception.

“I am disappointed they didn’t vote on it, but I am still hopeful they will get (the changes) done,” said Marie Blistan, the NJEA president, in an interview. “It’s the right thing to do, it’s based on facts and evidence … It will give us time to look at other things than just standardized test scores, which really just test on two things.”

Sean Spiller, the NJEA’s vice president, said he appreciated the further discussion, but not for too long. “I hope there is still time to make this happen, but it is a concern that it could be too late (for this year),” he said.

Commissioner Repollet was the last to speak.

Sounding defensive about his proposal, he said his plan was only to reduce the testing by four exams over the course of a student’s career, and it still pursues keeping the bar high for students going forward.

“I want to be clear to the board and to the public that we are not changing standards, we are not changing high-quality assessment,” he said. “We are not even changing graduation requirements.”

“We are talking about a progressive, innovative, educational system, where we think about what is going on in the building and the classroom, and we build from there,” he said.