Op-Ed: Keep Students at the Center When New Jersey Schools Reopen

Julie Larrea Borst | June 26, 2020 | Opinion, Education
As it draws to an end, this difficult, dramatic school year offers an opportunity to address and resolve long-standing issues with our public education system
Julie Larrea Borst

The administration of Gov. Phil Murphy has earned much-deserved praise for putting public health and safety at the center of the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the pandemic spread, the governor acted quickly and appropriately to close schools, suspend state testing and waive the state’s graduation-testing requirement for the class of 2020. These early and necessary steps helped school personnel focus on the pressing needs of students and school communities in unprecedented circumstances.

Now, as the administration seeks a successor to outgoing Commissioner Lamont Repollet and is engaged in difficult, complex conversations about how schools can reopen and reconfigure themselves for the 2020-2021 school year, we call on the governor to take additional steps to help schools stay focused on student needs, especially the needs of the state’s most vulnerable students —  of color, with disabilities, of low income and LGBTQIA — and also make sure the next commissioner of education has the support they will need to lead New Jersey schools through this challenging time.

Specifically, we call on the Murphy administration and the Department of Education to:

  • Seek a renewal of the ESSA waiver on federally mandated testing. New Jersey should apply now for an extension of that waiver for the 2020-2021 school year.

Schooling during the 2020-2021 school year will be anything but normal. As schools reopen amid multiple pandemic-related challenges, they should prioritize students’ social-emotional health and academic-learning needs. Schools should not be made to expend precious time and scarce resources on both standardized testing and costly, ineffective test-prep programming.

All districts should be required to assess and publicly report on student progress during the coming school year, and they should provide information about their assessment plans in their reopening proposals. The classroom teacher is the ultimate assessment platform. Teachers spend an entire school year working with students. They have in-depth knowledge of their students’ learning needs. Teacher-made assessments embedded in curriculum have historically been better indicators of student learning than standardized tests. Curriculum-based, classroom assessments provide frequent, real-time data about student progress and can be effectively used to diagnose student strengths and identify areas for improvement.

Any assessment requirements from the state must be cognizant of the trauma experienced by students and school staff, from the loss of loved ones to the loss of employment, from the experience of social isolation to the difficulty of coming back to school and getting back to learning. Any diagnostic assessments must be well-timed, nonpunitive and mindful of the social-emotional state of students and adults.

The 2020-2021 school year should not be planned around the state assessment calendar, which in normal times consumes far too much time and disrupts school schedules and staffing patterns in ways that are unsustainable and educationally inappropriate, especially during this period. We need more teaching and learning and less standardized testing. In recent years, New Jersey has given the longest standardized tests in the nation, and its experience with PARCC/NJSLA and computerized testing has been beset with problems.

  • Clarify the graduation requirements for all high school students before school reopens.

For nearly five years, beginning under the Christie administration, the DOE imposed graduation-testing rules that were unfair and illegal. In December 2018, those rules were struck down by New Jersey’s appellate court in response to a legal challenge from parents, civil rights, and education advocacy groups. A consent agreement provided transitional rules for students through the class of 2022, and even those requirements were waived by Murphy for this year’s seniors.

But new rules are still not in place for rising sophomores and incoming freshmen. When schools reopen in the fall, half of all high school students will not know what they have to do to earn a diploma. The best solution would be to revise the state graduation statute and eliminate the “exit testing” requirement for a diploma, as candidate Phil Murphy proposed during his campaign for governor. Research and experience have shown there is no demonstrable educational benefit of high school exit testing in New Jersey or in other states. But until exit testing is eliminated, a reasonable and efficient compromise proposal, consistent with existing state law, has been pending before the state Board of Education for more than six months without a final vote. It’s time for the state board to adopt that proposal and give all current high school students “fair notice” of what they need to graduate.

  • The expired seats on the state Board of Education need to be filled.

The same state board that failed to act on new graduation rules has become an obstacle to the education agenda that New Jersey needs. The current board is packed with appointees of Chris Christie, the most anti-public-education governor the state has ever had. By the end of June, seven of the 13 seats on the board will have expired. Those board members continue to serve only because archaic rules and Senate President Steve Sweeney have blocked the Murphy administration from replacing them. This needs to change. The state board needs new faces, new ideas and increased accountability. With a new commissioner in the offing, the time for making these changes is now. New state Board of Education members are essential to making sure the next commissioner is successful.

There are many education advocates and organizations, including Save Our Schools NJ, that are ready with potential nominees for the administration to consider. Unlike the Christie-appointed holdovers, new state board members should be committed to public education, well-versed in its many demands and requirements and representative of the diversity of our state. New Jersey schoolchildren deserve no less.