What a difference a few years make when it comes to New Jersey’s state testing.
It was in the spring of 2011 when New Jersey with great excitement joined a new testing consortium best known by its acronym, PARCC. Described as the “next generation of testing,” the evaluation was delivered online and promised deeper and more sophisticated data.
But controversy and debate arose almost immediately. First came questions about whether the technology would be ready in time. Then came the opt-out movement, which spread as in no other state. And that was just the beginning of the online test’s troubles.
Seven years later, the summer of 2018 marks the end of PARCC in New Jersey. But thus far, only vague promises about the “next generation of testing” have been made about what the future may bring.
Following Gov. Phil Murphy’s announcement on Tuesday, the state Board of Education yesterday took the first steps to scale back the tests significantly for 2018-2019 and to launch a new development phase for the years beyond that.
The board delivered a proposal to eliminate four of the six high school tests, and to only require students to take and pass an algebra and grade 10 language arts tests to graduate.
In addition, the Murphy administration proposed that the state continue to open a multitude of alternative pathways to graduation, including attaining cutoff scores on the SAT and ACT.
The administration also said the new high school tests — as well as those for grades three through eight — would be called “New Jersey” or “state” tests rather than PARCC. The PARCC consortium technically disbanded this year, officials said; its test materials are now in the hands of the Council of Chief State Officers.
It is not a given that the state board will go along with any or all of these steps, and there is political pushback elsewhere. But years after the board heartily endorsed PARCC, there appears to be only limited sentiment on the current board to keep it going.
“This is not a recommendation thought of overnight, but in countless talks and countless hours,” said state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet, describing scores of public forums that heard testimony from nearly 3,000 people.
Most of the education groups that have so far weighed in agreed it was time to move on, and some of their leaders on hand yesterday said indeed it was time for a new form of testing.
“We need to get to a place where it is not just an end-of-year test, but kids can demonstrate proficiency throughout the year,” said Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, the superintendents group.
“We should be able to document a kid saying, ‘you met the standards’ without making them sit for six hours [of testing],” he added.
But that sentiment didn’t preclude comments from some vocal dissenters. Most outspoken was Andrew Mulvihill, a Sussex County board member appointed by former Gov. Chris Christie at the height of PARCC’s popularity. He said he outright opposed the changes, slapping at the state’s teachers union for leading the fight against PARCC because it didn’t want the accountability.
“Less assessments? I think we need more assessments,” Mulvihill said. “What a wonderful tool we have to see how well students are doing in the classroom … I would just hate to see us go backwards.”
Board president Arcelio Aponte was more equivocal, but he said New Jersey had made significant strides under PARCC. He specifically cited rises in the state’s graduation rates, when PARCC critics contended it would dampen them.
‘We must be doing something right,” he said.
But others on the board said PARCC had become onerous for schools and students, and there were more effective measures.
“We are not trying to eliminate accountability but to create a measure that is much more accurate about where we are,” said Nedd Johnson, a Salem County member and former superintendent.
“When I’m in a building and see kids crying because what we are doing to them [with PARCC],” he said, “that to me is malpractice.”
Still, there are several caveats to what happens next. The State Board will continue to deliberate, and even those eager to make changes said this was only a beginning.
“I want to make clear this is our first discussion,” said Ronald Butcher, the board’s longest serving member and a former Rowan University administrator. “It is premature to assume we have had the opportunity to read and fully understand what is proposed.”
The state’s existing graduation requirements enacted under the Christie administration also remain under legal challenge, with some questions as to whether these latest changes would address the objections.
Led by the Education Law Center, a lawsuit now before the state appellate court contends that the existing rules were developed and promulgated in violation of state law and would only harm students’ educational prospects.
The lead attorney for the ELC said last night there’s still much to review in Murphy’s proposal.
"We're glad the Murphy Administration is trying to address the many deficiencies in the graduation testing rules put in place by the prior administration,” said Jessica Levin of the ELC in a statement.
“However, we have not seen an explanation as to how these proposed changes would remedy the clear violations of state law set forth in our lawsuit before the Appellate Court."
Oral arguments in that case have yet to be scheduled, she said.