State Board of Education Postpones Vote on New Student Testing Plan

John Mooney | October 3, 2019 | Education
Members, divided on the issue, face Nov. 6 deadline; commissioner warns of unilateral action
Credit: Edwin J. Torres/ Governor's Office
Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet, June 6, 2019, with Gov. Phil Murphy in the background

The State Board of Education yesterday delayed for at least another two weeks its vote on the Murphy administration’s proposal for slimming down the state’s student testing program.

Facing a November deadline and ramping up the tension, state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet for the first time indicated an “or else” if the board does not approve the plan. He did not say what that “or else” would be, but indicated he would have the unilateral power to act.

One option, the commissioner signaled, would be to cut back even further on high school testing than the administration has already proposed.

“If it sunsets [without a vote for changes], you may not like the consequences of what happens next,” Repollet said, referring to the existing regulations.

The decision to postpone the vote came as the culmination of a long day of debate at the board’s monthly meeting in Trenton, where the vote was expected. It became clear early on, however, that a consensus remained elusive, if not impossible.

The administration’s proposal would effectively reduce the state’s high school testing in language arts and math by a year. Currently, students are tested in grades 9-11.

The proposal would eliminate the 10th grade tests, while retaining the 11th grade exit test that would test skills and knowledge up to and including Algebra 1 and 10th grade language arts. The new requirements would be in place for the Class of 2023.

Officials concede plan is not ideal

State officials acknowledged the administration’s testing plan is not ideal and that it intends to seek a new testing vendor this winter for the years after 2023, meaning testing could change further still.

“This is one step in our transition and is a compromise, but it’s the best approach to avoid over-testing in high school, while still providing schools with years of continuous assessment data,“ said Repollet in a statement after the meeting. “And, of utmost importance, it gives parents and students a sense of stability moving forward.”

“This is an imperfect plan that represents our best thinking and our most honest depiction of the facts we have gathered and synthesized,” added Linda Eno, the assistant commissioner overseeing the program.

But in a déjà vu of the board’s meeting in September, the split in opinion was immediately apparent between those wanting to retain annual testing and those pushing to scale it back. And so, some board members complained that the administration had been slow in sharing its plans, with the latest draft distributed only on Tuesday night.

“For the public, I’m sorry if we come across as a bunch of bumbling fools up here,” apologized board vice president Andrew Mulvihill, as members flipped through the latest changes. “But we only received the documents at 5 o’clock last night. . . which I think is problematic.”

The critics dominated the discussion, with Mulvihill joined by board president Kathy Goldenberg and former president Arcelio Aponte pressing the argument that the state should not dilute the value of testing.

Geometry got some surprising new attention, as Goldenberg zeroed in on the state’s existing geometry test — part of the math-testing regimen for high school. She said that could fall by the wayside under the new plan, despite being a state standard.

“I’m not sure taking a sophomore test is so important, but I do believe the data point it provides is really, really important,” she said.

Exposing performance gaps

Aponte emphasized his long-standing position that the testing exposes performance gaps, adding, “How else do we see if there is that gap? Maybe districts come up with their own means, but historically they have not.”

But joining the meeting by speaker phone, board member Joseph Ricca shot back: “Geometry is not a great predictor when we are talking about college readiness.” Ricca was among those members who were generally supportive of moving ahead with the administration’s plan.

“There is not a whole lot new from what we’ve previously discussed,” said Ricca, a former New Jersey superintendent now working in New York State. “I’m struggling to understand what we’re not getting right.”

Ronald Butcher, the board’s longest-standing member, said: “I’d hate to see the ball stop rolling on this.”

A big question now is, who will vote with whom in the final vote, with seven votes required either way on the 13-member board? And there isn’t much time left.

Members of Repollet’s staff said that the current regulations expire on Nov. 6, at which time the state would revert to the previous testing regimen, which required only an 11th grade test in high school, without many of the alternative tests that have been added since if a student fails.

Emergency meeting in two weeks

The board wasn’t scheduled to meet until Nov. 6, leaving little room for error. Making matters even tighter, the deadline for a vote would be noon on that day. But board members agreed to hold an emergency meeting, likely on Oct. 16, giving members time for further discussion.

When asked afterward what could break the stalemate, Goldenberg said only that “time will tell.” Mulvihill added: “Maybe the commissioner will see the light.”

But a couple of board members were taken aback by Repollet’s statement that he could invoke unilateral power if the board did not act. Some wondered, if indeed he had those powers, why even go through the board’s review process. Others said it was news to them that he could act unilaterally.

Many in the audience, a mix of advocates and educators, were disappointed with the postponement of the vote.

“It’s more than frustrating,” said Marie Blistan, president of the New Jersey Education Association, which backs the administration on the issue. “They talk about this being about the kids and this is their responsibility, but to me, this is shirking their responsibility.”

“This has been going on for months,” she said. “This has been kicked down the road for what?”