Advocates Perturbed as Lawmakers Press on with School Testing Legislation

Carly Sitrin | February 22, 2019 | Education
The saga over graduation requirements for New Jersey’s high school students was thought to have been settled last week. Proposed new legislation is raising more concerns

Credit: NJTV News Online
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex)
When the state Department of Education agreed to allow students to graduate using their PARCC test scores last week, many assumed the skirmishing over graduation requirements had ended, for now. Legislators, however, are pushing ahead with a measure that education activists say could cause ripples for years to come.

After an appellate court decision in a case brought by the Education Law Center, the ACLU and others invalidated the PARCC graduation requirement for current high school students, state lawmakers rushed to action. They drafted a bill that would protect nearly 170,000 juniors and seniors by allowing them to graduate using the rules in place before the case was decided. The bill was sold as a “stop-gap” measure to clean up the chaos created by the court decision. And lawmakers moved the measure forward with the suggestion that it would become unnecessary if the appellants in the case and Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration reached an agreement.

That agreement was reached late last Friday, giving students in the classes of 2019 and 2020 a set path to graduation. But bills were nonetheless posted for a vote in both the Senate and Assembly, which would expand the time PARCC could be used for an additional two years, for the classes of 2019 and 2020. On Thursday, the measure (S-3381), passed out of the Senate with a vote of 21 to 7. Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the bill’s sponsor, said the legislation is still necessary because the agreement does not cover all students currently in high school.

“Even though the agreement came through, there has to be a statute change,” Ruiz said. “Either you do this today or we do it in two years when we come to this crossroads again.”

The legislation would remove the 11th-grade requirement that the ELC’s court case was built on — that PARCC, which is broken up into two English and math components and can be taken in multiple grades over a number of weeks does not comply with state law which requires 11th-grade pupils to pass a single assessment.

It also would reinforce the agreement reached by the DOE and ELC that students graduating in the classes of 2019 and 2020 will be able to earn their diploma using their PARCC scores. For the classes of 2021 and beyond, they agreed the Commissioner of Education with approval from the State Board of Education will be tasked with creating a suitable state assessment — which, under this bill could be, but doesn’t have to be, an 11th grade test.

Ruiz: ‘…a lot of unanswered questions’

Ruiz noted that “even though there was an agreement there are still a lot of unanswered questions for students,” and not much time to solve them.

“If [the Department of Education] moves to an 11th grade test are they prepared to offer one? Do they have one in place?” Ruiz asked. “Is it going to be the SAT which is not aligned with state standards? Who’s going to pay for that?”

Credit: NJTV News
PARCC testing
Indeed, several studies have called into question the ability of SAT and ACT to accurately measure high school achievement. Both exams have been accepted as alternatives to passing PARCC to fulfill the graduation requirement in years past. Students in the graduating classes of 2021 and onward would only be able to access one alternative, the portfolio appeals process and only if they had already taken the state assessment(s).

Advocates including Julie Borst, executive director of Save Our Schools NJ, disagree with Ruiz’s characterization of the bill and say it “leaves the door open” for a future rife with “slews of tests” for students.

“It was shopped around as a stop-gap measure but it goes much further than that,” Borst said. “Your stop gap just happened on Friday through the court,” she said, referencing the agreement between the DOE and ELC that was facilitated by the appellate court.

Worries about future interpretations of the law

Borst’s main concern is the bill’s use of the phrase “assessment or assessments” which she said means legislators may be unknowingly creating a blind spot that future administrations could take advantage of down the line.

“I don’t think our current (education) commissioner has any interest in making kids take and pass multiple tests in multiple subjects but that doesn’t mean the next one won’t. This bill leaves everything so wide open,” Borst said.

Ruiz said the reason for that language is to create space for the classes of 2019 and 2020 to graduate using the old requirements but also to cover all students in high school for whom an assessment has not yet been crafted. She said the intent of the bill “is clear” and it is not to allow for an onslaught of testing.

Now that the bill has passed out of the Senate, advocates like Borst and the thousands of parents she represents, are turning their attention to the Assembly where members voted the legislation out of committee with some hesitation last Thursday. They’ve been active on social media in Facebook groups like Refuse State Standardized Tests — New Jersey, urging concerned constituents to call their legislators and the Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex).

“THIS IS AN EMERGENCY!!!” one post from Save Our Schools NJ said. “The horrible legislation that would force our children to take an unlimited number of standardized tests in any grade in order to graduate from high school, is up for a full Senate vote tomorrow.”

Assembly members more cautious

Their activism may fall on more sympathetic ears in the Assembly, according to Borst; several Assembly members expressed concern about the measure despite voting it out of committee.

Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex)
“I have significant reservations about what we are baking into this legislation,” Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex) said before voting “yes” last week. “I think we need to tread very lightly because it’s not just about what this administration’s philosophy is but future administrations as well.”

Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake (D-Essex) said she too had serious concerns about the possibility of interpreting the legislation to flood schools with more standardized tests.

“My father was in the military and so I’ve been to probably eight or nine public school systems. I’ve never been good at standardized tests. Ever. Because not everyone learns the same — that’s especially true in different cultures and in communities of color in particular …the idea that college and career preparedness can be determined off a standardized test to me is a little bit narrow minded,” Timberlake said. “I am going to vote for this out of committee, but I can’t promise what I’m going to do on the floor for that final vote.”

Ultimately, Ruiz said, passing this legislation is something that needs to be done and the discussion about whether the current state assessment (the PARCC tests have been renamed and shortened as of this spring to the New Jersey Student Learning Assessments) is working is a separate one.

“This is not a conversation about whether you like or dislike the test,” Ruiz said. “This is something we have to do to change the statute.”

An identical bill will be up for a vote in the Assembly on Monday.