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Op-Ed: Commissioner Repollet’s School Testing Revisions Make Sense

State Board of Education should adopt education commissioner’s proposed changes as best way to prove students are meeting requirements

sarah blaine
Sarah Blaine

In 2016, the New Jersey State Board of Education adopted a two-phase plan for transitioning from use of New Jersey’s High School Proficiency Assessment as its mandated high school exit exam, to the use of the PARCC Algebra I and English Language Arts 10 exams.

The Phase One changes authorized use of PARCC Algebra I and ELA 10 as the primary tests to be used to meet the statutory requirement but provided for multiple substitute assessments that could — and would — also be available for students to meet their high school graduation requirement.

The Phase Two changes eliminate use of the substitute assessments to meet the graduation exit exam requirement. New Jersey’s Education Commissioner, Dr. Lamont Repollet, has now proposed some commonsense revisions to the 2016 regulations, which would, in substance, continue Phase One indefinitely. The board of education should approve those revisions as soon as practicable.

Who can argue with success?

Two academic years have now passed, and although the implementation of the first-phase changes has been a bit bumpy at times, overall these changes have been a success. Relying on a combination of PARCC scores along with scores on other standardized tests, students have been able to make use of multiple pathways to demonstrate the basic literacy and numeracy skills required of all students under New Jersey’s graduation exit exam law.

In 2017 (the most recent year for which data is available), 98,338 students graduated from New Jersey’s public high schools. Of that number, 26,213 (27 percent) graduated by relying only on the Algebra I and ELA 10 tests. Another 32,349 (33 percent) graduated by relying on the substitute assessments, and an additional 28,600 (29 percent) relied on a combination of PARCC and the substitute assessments. A further 7 percent relied on alternate requirements specified in their Individualized Education Programs. The remaining 4 percent relied on the portfolio appeals approach.

Unfortunately, however, the 2016 regulations contain a provision that sunsets the Phase One changes beginning with the class of 2021 — this year’s current 10th graders. It is the Phase Two changes that parents, students and educators so vociferously objected to back in 2016. Those changes require students to rely only on the PARCC Algebra I and ELA 10 tests to graduate from high school. Only after students have taken and failed the Algebra I and ELA 10 tests, at least twice, will they have access to a portfolio appeal. The portfolio requires yet more coursework, teacher time, and a formal review by the NJ Department of Education. In addition, the portfolio process brings with it substantial opportunity costs for students, who will need to schedule remedial coursework and/or portfolio preparation in lieu of electives or higher-level coursework.

As the 2017 numbers demonstrate, implementing Phase Two would plunge 62 percent of New Jersey’s high school students into a world in which they no longer had access to a full complement of higher-level coursework and meaningful electives. Instead, those students would be required to take unnecessary remedial and portfolio-appeal coursework that would stand between them and exploring their individual talents in other academic subjects, the arts, or various STEM, technical, and vocational pursuits.

Look at the numbers

This summer, Education Commissioner Repollet looked at the numbers, sought input from stakeholders across the state, and then sensibly sought to extend the Phase One changes, which have been working for the vast majority of New Jersey’s high school students.

In contrast to the concerns expressed by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, all the proposed regulations currently before the State Board of Education really seek to do is to extend the Phase One changes indefinitely. Students would still need to take the ELA 10 and Algebra I assessments to graduate. But students would continue to have multiple pathways to demonstrate what they know and can do.

In addition, Dr. Repollet’s proposal seeks to streamline the testing process by eliminating unnecessary additional high school testing, clarifying the applicability of testing to students with special needs, and eliminating duplicative testing for English Language Learners.

Dr. Repollet’s commonsense approach is what is best for students, teachers, schools, and parents. The State Board of Education should immediately take steps to adopt the revised regulations, which will allow our students and educators to focus their attention on making sure that each and every one of New Jersey’s students can prove his or her statutorily required reading, writing, and computational competency without losing access to varied electives, higher-level coursework, and in-depth technical and vocational opportunities. Our children deserve nothing less.

Sarah Blaine is an attorney, public-school parent, education activist, former teacher, and education blogger. She is a graduate of New Jersey’s public schools, and has lived in Montclair since 2007.

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