Gov. Chris Christie’s press conference yesterday, billed as an “education announcement,” enabled Christie to use the Statehouse setting to celebrate the state's latest.
Maybe intentionally, the hour-long session in the governor’s outer office quickly moved to national topics, including Christie weighing in -- neutrally -- on Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s now-infamous feud with the Muslim parents of an Army captain killed in Iraq.
But the few minutes on education, while it may have been overshadowed by bolder headlines, came with its own dose of politics, as Christie and his administration tried to put the best face on the state’s long-debated testing policies and what comes next in the third year under PARCC, the tests developed by a multi-state collaboration, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.
“There was a lot of hysteria as you all remember last year, people calling upon me to cancel the PARCC tests, not administer them anymore,” Christie said. “And what I said was that, you know, we have to have patience about this and leadership is about, you know, in some respects taking the heat that you need to take when something’s not popular to give it the amount of time to be shown to be … [an] effective tool.”
The numbers were encouraging, albeit not wholly unexpected. In virtually every grade, the percentage of students “meeting or exceeding expectations” – the two highest of five categories -- rose in both the language arts and math tests. The increases ranged from a negligible 1 percent to a healthy 9 percent.
In addition, the rates of those “not yet meeting or partially meeting expectations” – the two lowest levels – also dropped in nearly every grade, again in the single digits.
Such improvements were to be expected with a new test, as students become more familiar with the testing, the first to be administered online.
Yet the overall proficiency rates were still sobering, with barely half the students making the grade in both the math and language arts sections and that portion dropping to just a quarter meeting expectations in the high school math tests in Algebra and Geometry.
Those were statewide results, with struggling districts sure to be far lower. District by district results were not made available yesterday, and district officials said they would not come until October.
In addition, looking at how the same students did from year to year, there were even some drops in the passing rates in a couple of grades.
But without getting into the numbers – actually not even mentioning them -- Christie stuck to the upbeat note, even in holding the press conference in the first place. In the past, Christie and his predecessors have announced test scores by press release in the middle of the winter.
Calling it “really good news,” the governor said the improved scores mean “a higher percentage of students met or exceeded expectations, indicating they’re on pace to become college and career ready in nearly all subjects at nearly all grade levels.”
The governor also played up higher participation numbers in the second year of testing, although the Department of Education has been reluctant up to now to call them a true gauge of the so-called opt-out movement.
According to the state’s data, an additional 56,000 students took the tests last spring, compared to the year before when participation was down to about two-thirds of high school students.
The high school numbers rose the most, and overall, 826,000 students statewide took the tests last year, of the roughly 900,000 in the tested grades.
Standing with Christie yesterday, state Education Commissioner David Hespe called the second year a success, saying that changes in the regimen to shorten the amount of testing had also helped state’s students and teachers become more familiar with the PARCC. He also pointed out scores were being made to districts earlier than ever, with the summer release far outpacing the usual winter release of scores.
“PARCC delivers on its promise of new and more actionable data on students’ academic progress,” Hespe said. “Today, these results show the improvements we were expecting. Across the board in math and language arts, we are seeing this pattern emerging that proves New Jersey is on the right academic track.”
When asked whether more changes would be coming next spring, he said none were planned.
The various education groups yesterday had their own take on the results. The New Jersey Education Association has long been critical of the PARCC and its measures of both students and teachers, and yesterday, NJEA president Wendell Steinhauer said the latest results were hardly proof of their effectiveness.
"We don't need a costly, controversial high-stakes test to tell us what we already know,” he said. “New Jersey's schools perform at a very high level, and students living in poverty have greater challenges than their wealthier peers.”
Save Our Schools NJ – a parent-led advocacy group -- had been a leader in the fight against the testing and in support of the opt-out movement, and one of its leaders said she too saw little to cheer.
“We note that opt out numbers are still pretty high, despite the relentless pressure put on districts, teachers, parents, and students by the NJ DOE, the NJ Chamber of Commerce, and their well-funded We Raise NJ Coalition,” said Susan Cauldwell.
She cited today’s expected vote by the State Board of Education that will approve using the PARCC testing as a graduation requirement, starting with the Class of 2021.
“The press conference is an obvious attempt to grease the skids for tomorrow's approval of the [graduation] regulations,” she said.
But the state’s superintendents group applauded the results and said the improvement was an indication of the schools adjusting to the new tests.