The day before he gives the State of the State address, Gov. Phil Murphy used his regular press briefing Monday to give a short version of the state of New Jersey’s schools. And for all the pronouncements of progress, the comments left nearly as many questions and uncertainties.
In something of a surprise, Murphy announced several school-related executive orders, led by the suspension for the second straight year of the state’s exit-exam requirements for graduation.
He also suspended the use of certain student performance measures in mandated teacher evaluations and loosened some of the state’s rules for incoming teachers.
“Each of these steps is being taken because, given the unique challenges our students and educators are facing, we simply have to all reach the conclusion that (this) is not a regular school year,” Murphy said.
“We have to be more flexible and more understanding.”
Since the early days of the pandemic, Murphy hasn’t issued many executive orders pertaining to schools. Monday’s actions and comments still left many issues unresolved as districts go back in session after the winter break.
For example, despite Murphy’s pleas, Newark’s public school district — the state’s largest — announced it would continue remote instruction until April, a full year since it shut down in-class instruction. Newark is among a growing number of districts that have moved to all-remote instruction as COVID-19 cases rise.
“There is no joy in that,” Murphy said of Newark’s decision. “But those on the ground are up against the facts much more closely than we are, and we have to respect those decisions.”
Other questions remain unanswered. For instance, as vaccines roll out, will teachers statewide be required to be inoculated? Murphy only repeated previous comments that he hoped teachers would return on their own without a requirement.
As for student testing, the administration may have suspended some of the stakes — like graduation — for the year, but the governor stopped short of saying the tests themselves would be suspended.
To do that, the state would need to seek a waiver from the federal Department of Education, which through federal law requires annual testing in language arts and math. The incoming Biden administration has yet to signal its position on spring testing, and Murphy hasn’t committed one way or the other.
Murphy and his acting education commissioner Angelica Allen-MacMillan on Monday said whether New Jersey applies for a waiver has yet to be decided, but the state in the meantime is proceeding with plans for spring testing.
“We are planning our scheduled administration,” Allen-MacMillan said. “If there is a change (in the federal position), we will weigh our options at that time.”
Nonetheless, Monday’s announcements gave plenty for education stakeholders to digest. The state’s dominant teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, welcomed the decision about graduation requirements and teacher evaluations, saying this extraordinary year demanded the state to be flexible.
“I think the executive order is an acknowledgement of the absurdity of using testing to make high-stakes decisions in a year like this,” said Steve Baker, the NJEA’s communications director.
Rethink high-stakes testing?
Baker said he hoped the executive order would open the way for rethinking the value of high-stakes testing in general. “As with so many things, we shouldn’t assume post-pandemic that everything should automatically revert to the status quo with regard to high-stakes testing,” he wrote.
Predating the Murphy administration, the Education Law Center has led a lengthy legal challenge to the state’s graduation requirements based on passing the state’s high school tests.
While the state has yet to address requirements for the future, as ordered by the courts, the center said Murphy’s action Monday at least resolved the issue for this year’s expected graduates.
“This decision will help New Jersey’s schools and students focus on more pressing concerns in the midst of an unprecedented public health crisis,” said Stan Karp, the ELC director who had led the challenge.
But not everyone was pleased by the news about testing. State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the chair of the Senate’s education committee, said in an interview that it was unclear how many students the action would really benefit, with a vast majority of them having cleared the requirements already.
She has instead pressed the state to retain its testing and other accountability measures, especially during this crisis period.
“I understand the stress that students and teachers are facing, but I’m not sure this is in the best interest of students,” she said. “It just seems we continue to move away from getting a true determination of where we stand as a school system.”