Edgy Debate in Trenton Over Murphy’s Planned Changes to School Testing

Carly Sitrin, John Mooney | September 18, 2018 | Education
Democratic legislators clash with education commissioner, suggest administration is moving to scale back and ultimately ditch controversial PARCC test without having properly prepared a replacement

Education commissioner Lamont Repollet and state Sen. Teresa Ruiz
When the Senate and Assembly education committees called for a joint hearing yesterday on the state’s PARCC testing, it was a rare move, with lawmakers venturing into the weeds of state assessments.

But the Democratic leadership in the State House clearly has not been shy in taking on Gov. Phil Murphy and his administration over a host of issues. Now, just add school testing to the list.

The Senate and Assembly education committees called the hearing yesterday to discuss the ongoing debate and impasse over the future of standardized testing in New Jersey.

Murphy wants to scale back and ultimately eliminate the use of the controversial PARCC tests, including its use as an exit test for high school graduation. That will start with eliminating four of the high school tests altogether this year and keeping in place alternative pathways for graduation.

Democratic lawmakers say not so fast, and want the administration to have a new assessment in place before moving on from the old. The State Board of Education, the ultimate arbiter, has put off a decision for at least another month.

Repollet versus Ruiz, Lampitt

Yesterday, it was Murphy’s new Commissioner of Education, Lamont Repollet, going toe-to-toe with state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) and Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden), chairs of their respective education committees.

“My goal as the new Commissioner is to draw upon my 23 years of educational experience as a teacher, vice principal, principal and superintendent to create an educational system that’s built upon Governor Murphy’s vision for a stronger and fairer public education,” Repollet said.

But, in one of several testy exchanges, Ruiz made clear she needed a lot more reason than that to support the changes he proposed.

“When you’re given a charge to go out and eliminate something, you’re not looking at the benefit of it, you’re not looking to really overhaul, but just to carry out that vision,” she said. “That question is not to you, but to the governor as to why he wanted the department to go lead that charge.”

Lampitt: ‘…what I’m listening to is conflicting’

Credit: NJTV News
Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden)
Lampitt was not much more sympathetic: “I’m finding what I’m listening to is conflicting, and I’m not so sure about the strategy that you’re taking. I’m very, very concerned about this, Commissioner,” she said.

In the end, Ruiz announced she would bring together a “consortium” of stakeholders to begin discussing what are the next steps in developing a new test.

“Today’s joint hearing was a good beginning but certainly not the last conversation on how we move forward to raise the bar on school assessments and evaluations in the state of New Jersey,” Ruiz said in a statement issued afterward.

Exactly what role the lawmakers have in developing and defining assessments is uncertain. That job typically is left to the state Department of Education, with the State Board of Education’s final approval. The Legislature might write the law requiring tests and their impact on the fates of students and teachers, but not how they are administered and with what tool.

Not the first public clash for Ruiz

This is not the first time Ruiz has publicly clashed with the Murphy administration over its testing policies.

Last month, the administration reduced the weight of PARCC scores on certain teacher evaluations to just 5 percent, a tiny share. Ruiz, who wrote the law in 2012 that allowed for the use of student performance in teacher evaluation, said then and again yesterday that she had never intended the share would go so low.

“When I designed that law … I put a ceiling in to protect from a worst-case scenario,” she said. “I never thought of putting a floor to be sure we weren’t rolling back initiatives that were progressive.”

Some in attendance applauded the lawmakers for helping bring some needed deliberation to the decisions ahead and asked the state board to follow suit.

“We continue to echo the legislators’ bipartisan concern that this process needs to be slowed down and refocused on ensuring that we fully understand the impact of the proposed changes,” said a statement from leaders of Better Education for Kids and JerseyCAN, two pro-reform groups. “We hope the State Board of Education will also be a partner in fully examining this issue.”

But not everyone was pleased, especially with Sen. Ruiz’s mention that future stakeholder meetings may take place behind closed doors.

Not everyone agreed with the lawmakers

A press conference organized by the NJEA took place across the street from the joint education committee hearing in Trenton.
“I came down to Trenton today to hear where our legislators stand,” said Sarah Blaine, a parent who spoke at a New Jersey Education Association press conference in support of Repollet’s changes.

“What shocked me today — because something that I really believe in is open government — was the first thing I heard at this hearing was the chair of the committee, Senator Ruiz saying that these decisions need to take place behind closed doors,” she continued. “I’m a parent, and I say ‘Open the doors.’ Make sure that we all know what’s happening.”

Some fellow lawmakers also expressed dissent. Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex) said she thought lawmakers’ place is in reviewing a proposed policy and ensuring that it has the financial support it requires, not writing the policy itself.

“I don’t think we are the people to tell you what the standards should be in terms of testing,” she said. “I think you should bring that to us.”

“I think that we should understand it, I want to hear from the educators as well as the parents and then I want to see support going forward for a thoughtful and careful change to the way we’re doing business.”

Ruiz, however, stated unequivocally that she believes the Legislature should be intimately involved in crafting the “next generation of assessments for New Jersey” and held out hope the administration would work with her.

“I want to be a part of that process,” Ruiz said. “I look forward to having [Commissioner Repollet] as a partner and collaborator.”