Op-Ed: The True Assessment Opportunity Presented by End of the PARCC Era

By reconceptualizing assessment, we can develop a system that is diagnostic and provides feedback to educators and parents about their students in real time

L to R: Scott Rocco, Thomas Smith, David Aderhold
In an era of accountability, the rollout of the PARCC assessment has gone noticeably less smoothly than any student assessment in recent memory. The promises of implementation, results, and impact have not been realized. During the PARCC era, there has been a widespread backlash to standardized assessments that diminished its meaning and impact. In response to the lengthened testing time and the opt out movement, numerous changes were hastily implemented to PARCC to appease the masses. One such change was the modification that students have to take the Algebra II and English 11 assessments but no longer have to pass the assessment. An unintended consequence of this change was a violation of the New Jersey administrative code.

On December 31, 2018, the state Superior Appellate Court issued a ruling that invalidated the utilization of PARCC as a graduation assessment. The court determined that those assessments failed to meet the statutory regulatory requirements of an 11th grade assessment. The defunct guidelines that all school districts have followed from the New Jersey State Board of Education and the New Jersey Department of Education provided that students must have a passing score on the PARCC English Language 10 (ELA) and Algebra 1 assessments. Graduation could also be attained with a passing score on an alternative assessment like the SAT or ACT, or by submitting a portfolio appeal through the New Jersey Department of Education.

School administrators, parents, and students were mired in confusion and concern while we waited for the political process to play out. After weeks of political wrangling, which included proposed stop-gap measures, legislative proposals to alter the statutory guidelines, requests for reconsideration, and legal briefs, it has been announced that a deal has been struck to avert a crisis of graduation. On Friday, February 15, school districts learned that the deal averts a graduation crisis for over 150,000 seniors and juniors as it allows the current graduation requirements to stand for the graduating classes of 2019 and 2020. However, for current sophomores (class of 2021) and all grades that follow, the New Jersey Department of Education must work to recommend new graduation criteria.

Crisis far from over

We pause to celebrate the deal struck between the Education Law Center, and others, and the New Jersey Department of Education for the current classes of 2019 and 2020. Credit goes to our commissioner of education, Dr. Lamont Repollet and his team, and the Education Law Center for finding a path to compromise. But it must be remembered that a prior governor, a prior State Board of Education, and a prior commissioner of education created and approved the guidelines for graduation that were being challenged. The real crisis is far from over.

The real crisis is complex and political. It is grounded in best intentions as testing holds different value and meaning based upon your perspective. For some, testing is about measurement and compliance. This is evidenced in our accountability system (QSAC), our evaluation system for teachers and principals (student growth percentiles), evaluation of school districts (performance reports), and ultimately the issuing of diplomas to our students. For others, assessments are supposed to be diagnostic in nature, which allows teachers and administrators to determine students’ individual strengths, weaknesses, knowledge, and skills. In theory, supports would be targeted based upon the assessment results and provide for academic remediation and/or an acceleration plan. In this use, it would be employed as a diagnostic tool. So as we move forward at this crucial time, will the next generation of student assessments be a tool for learning or a compliance measure?

A stark reality remains, no currently utilized standardized assessment meets all perspectives. The federal requirement to test is mandated under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Its intention is to measure progress, ensure that all students are able to graduate high school ready for college or career, and to ensure educational equity and excellence for all students. The federal requirement maintains that all states administer statewide assessments in reading/language arts and mathematics in grades three through eight and once in high school. However, unlike New Jersey, many states have chosen not to require a graduation test. Furthermore, states must provide a science assessment once per grade. In New Jersey, the assessment requirements are defined under state administrative code 6A:8.

There is a fundamental disconnect between the purpose of the assessment and the desired hope for the assessment. A juxtaposition exists between the federal and state testing mandate and the desire for diagnostic assessments. The conundrum exists due to the fact that our current tests were not designed as diagnostic assessments, they were designed as a compliance measure. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the New Jersey Department of Education has a responsibility to administer an assessment. The federal requirements mandate that school districts maintain a 95 percent participation rate. Furthermore, the assessment is used as a measure and report of school performance. ESSA requires that student growth is tracked through standardized measures. Poorly designed tests may comply with mandates, but won’t help our students grow.

A glimmer of hope

New Jersey has a tremendous opportunity to revise the assessment program. In a positive step, Commissioner Repollet has convened six statewide assessment committees that represent over 300 educators. The NJDOE has been asking the professionals for their feedback and input. The conversations have been important and the request for input has been appreciated by the participants. The challenge for this committee is that we have been boxed into the current regulations established by the Legislature and the regulatory guidance approved by the State Board of Education. Our options for improved assessment are stymied by outdated regulations.

On February 22, Commissioner Repollet informed New Jersey school districts that the NJDOE has received the approved consent order from the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division. This order memorialized the agreement between the NJDOE and the Education Law Center. The commissioner has clearly stated that he will continue to work with the State Board of Education “through the regulatory process” to address the Appellate Division’s December 31, 2018 court decision regarding the impact to the Class of 2021 and beyond. Under the legal settlement between the ELC and the NJDOE there is no guidance for the Class of 2021 and beyond; however, there is a significant political discussion on assessment reform, so it is important that we make our voices heard.

On February 21, the New Jersey Senate voted 22-7 with 11 abstentions to approve S-3381. This bill revises provisions of law concerning graduation proficiency tests and eliminates the requirement that a test be administered in 11th grade. The New Jersey Assembly has an identical bill, A-4957, pending in the Assembly Education Committee. However, on February 25, the committee tabled the bill for further review. Ultimately, if approved, the elimination of an 11th grade test would be sent to the governor for his signature. This bill cuts both ways. On the one hand, it opens up the possibilities for the statewide education committee, which is under the direction of the commissioner of education and the New Jersey Department of Education to think differently and reconceptualize high school assessment. However, the bill still mandates a high-stake graduation assessment. This may simply be one step in assessment reform, but it by no means provides the freedom to develop assessments that will truly drive instruction and impact student learning. Without critical changes to legislation, any such recommendation for standardized assessment in New Jersey will result in an experience similar to the one that occurred prior to PARCC (a mandatory, compliance assessment that is administered for graduation).

Politics influence education policy

Our lawmakers are charged with ensuring that students meet state and federal mandates, but their responsibility ends there. The Legislature must allow the commissioner of education and the Department of Education to establish rules and regulations absent the interference of political agendas. The current system is flawed at best in that the assessments are not designed for the purpose of measuring educators’ impact on student progress. We can look no further than teacher and principal evaluations to see the targeted utilization of student standardized scores as a “quality control check” on educators. The test designers work to measure student knowledge and growth to curriculum standards. The scoring methodology is intended to give feedback on individual students and their knowledge of the standards learned.

Due to political agendas, we now function under a set of poorly understood and constructed student-growth metrics. What’s lost in these complex formulas is the simple fact that the instruction students receive in one classroom, one building, and one district cannot possibly be measured in this way. Standardized assessment should never define our students’ or our teachers’ ability or capabilities. They are one data point. Anyone who tells you different has a no understanding of the current assessment model or they have a political agenda.

An opportunity to change

The opportunity to reset the purpose and utilization of assessment is upon us. The Legislature has the opportunity to provide greater flexibility of design and measure within the assessment model. The federal government does not require standardized assessments as a mandate for graduation. The federal requirement simply calls for assessments to be given. The Legislature has the power to develop regulations that provide the state Department of Education with tools to think differently about standardized assessments. We can develop a system that is diagnostic in nature and that does provide feedback to educators and parents about their students in real time that has a meaningful benefit in the current year. To do this, assessment must be reconceptualized.

We all have a stake in the decisions that will be made on the next generation of assessments the class of 2021, and all those that come after, will be required to take, but time is limited and decisions will be made quickly. This decision is all the more pressing with the PARCC contract (now NJSLA) expiring after 2020 and the fact that a new test design and procurement process is time-consuming and lengthy. We implore the Legislature to allow the commissioner of education and the Department of Education to establish rules and regulations absent the interference of political agendas so we can work together to have an assessment in place that works for all of us. If we are truly interested in preparing our students for productive lives after graduation, to participate in a global economy, to be lifelong learners, to live with passion, we must abandon the political agendas and seize this opportunity to develop an assessment that does what we all need.

New Jersey’s next student assessment must be a tool that guides student growth, holds meaning and purpose for our students (especially our high school test-takers), and provides value. Any measure that is simply designed to ensure federal compliance is nothing more than an act of futility. If we are going to have a system of standardized assessment, build it so it’s a meaningful diagnostic tool and not a box we collectively check for compliance.