Legislators have responded to a deluge of passionate phone calls from parents urging them to reject a bill they say would allow unlimited testing of students for years to come.
State lawmakers in the General Assembly held a bill from Monday’s voting session (A-4957/(S-3381) that would let 11th and 12th graders use their PARCC scores to meet graduation requirements. The bill’s sponsor, Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden) said the measure was pulled because caucus members were hearing from constituents who took issue with the bill’s language, which allows for “assessment or assessments” to be used to graduate.
“All of our offices were called by (advocacy group) Save Our Schools or NJEA,” Lampitt said. “The bottom line is people were hearing that this was going to open the doors to any assessments and any amount of assessments and that’s untrue. We just need to go back and make sure that our members are comfortable with the bill and reassure them and give them a little bit more time to read it through.”
Languishing in limbo
More than 170,000 New Jersey high school students were left in limbo after a December appellate court decision invalidated using PARCC scores as a way to fulfill state graduation requirements. The court said the exam, which has two components and can be taken over multiple years, does not meet state law which mandates one assessment be given to all 11th grade pupils. After much back and forth between the Education Law Center (one of the appellants in the case) and the state Department of Education, an agreement was reached to allow juniors and seniors to graduate using the earlier menu of options. That agreement was finally approved by the court in an official consent order late on Friday.
However, lawmakers in Trenton have also been moving forward with a bill they are calling a “stopgap measure” that would change state law to remove the 11th-grade requirement and reinforce the DOE and ELC’s agreement that students graduating in the classes of 2019 and 2020 will be able to earn their diplomas using their PARCC scores. That bill would also task the commissioner of education (with approval from the State Board of Education) with creating the next state test and setting the graduation requirements for the classes of 2021 and beyond. New Jersey law requires a statewide exam be taken in the 11th grade; students who don’t pass that test have alternative paths to graduation.
The bill, which passed the Senate 21 to 7 last week, has now been stopped on the Assembly side.
Crafting code for classes of 2019, 2020
The Senate bill’s sponsor Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) has been adamant that it would do nothing more than codify in statute what has already been in practice in public schools for the past few years: PARCC scores can be used to fulfill the graduation requirements for the classes of 2019 and 2020. She also said that the bill creates space for the DOE to cover current ninth and 10th graders who now do not have an approved pathway to graduation. And Assemblywoman Lampitt is in lockstep with that message.
“I am in concurrence with Sen. Ruiz that this does protect our 10th graders as well, and so at this point in time we will wait, hear from our caucus members and see what cleanup needs to be done,” Lampitt said.
Despite the committee chairs’ assurances, lawmakers could not ignore the phone calls pouring into their offices from parents worried that the “assessment or assessments” phrasing could open schools up to multiple exit exams for students in the future.
“We as a collective body heard from literally hundreds of parents,” Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex) said. Zwicker said he does not support the current language of the bill and would like for the Legislature to “have a reset,” and spend more time exploring the issue of high-stakes testing.
Ready, aim, fire
After the Senate version of the bill sailed through a vote last week, advocates and activists targeted the Assembly as a likely spot to cut the measure down.
According to posts across social media, including the Refuse State Standardized Tests New Jersey Facebook group, parents were urged to contact their legislators and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin to express their concerns.
Julia Sass Rubin, founder of advocacy group Save Our Schools NJ, reported that members sent 3,400 emails over three days and made hundreds of phone calls to legislators about this issue.
Kristen Jandoli, 49, of Haddon Township was one of those callers. She has three kids in the public school system: a sophomore in high school, an eighth grader, and a fourth grader, all of whom have opted out of the PARCC test. Jandoli said she called her legislator, Assemblywoman Lampitt, to express her concern that “PARCC was rearing its ugly head” and that if this measure were to pass, testing could possibly increase for students. She said she was “very disappointed” that her representative sponsored this bill.
“We have our children in New Jersey public schools because they’re some of the best in the country,” Jandoli said. “The high-stakes testing that New Jersey chose to pursue during the Christie administration corrupted the purpose of a test. Now, teachers are forced to teach to the test, and I want my children to have a well-rounded education.”
Jandoli also said that the court decision should render this legislation unnecessary — something the ELC has also argued.
“The court order and NJDOE guidance eliminate any need for an immediate legislative remedy,” said David Sciarra, ELC executive director. “The Ruiz bill should be tabled to give the NJDOE, educators and parents a meaningful opportunity to consider any permanent changes to New Jersey exit-testing law. Legislators should not be forced to vote on those changes under the guise of an emergency that no longer exists.”
Ruiz has repeatedly noted that passing these changes through legislation will need to be done to codify the new requirements in state law and has emphasized that the discussion about the efficacy of the current state assessment (the PARCC tests have been renamed the New Jersey Student Learning Assessments) is an entirely separate one. However, parents and advocates are now calling for that discussion to be had in the form of public hearings.
“I hope that Gov. Murphy and his administration and the New Jersey Legislature really can begin taking a deep dive into what are some best practices in education that the state can be pursuing for its students,” Jandoli said. “I keep wondering when our politicians are going to wake up.”