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NJ DOE Tips Its Hand on New Proposal for Student Assessments

Department also delivers mixed results of last year’s statewide testing, with only about half of students passing math and language-arts exams

student testing
Credit: Creative Commons

New Jersey has long been at war with itself over how best to test its public schoolchildren. As a result, the standardized assessments have changed every few years — each time touching off debates over how high to set the bar and what ages should be evaluated.

Get ready for another round, and it could be a bruiser. At this stage not even the key players agree about how and when to start the first phase of the process.

The Murphy administration yesterday presented the state Board of Education with its latest multiyear plan for replacing the much-derided PARCC exams. Scrapping PARCC was a favorite campaign promise of Gov. Phil Murphy back in 2017 that, needless to say, is proving hard to execute.

Unveiled by Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet and his staff, the plan calls for continuing the PARCC-styled tests for at least another two years, while the state devises a “next generation” of assessments to serve as both an annual gauge of student progress and an exit test for high school graduation.

No testing in the 10th

The one difference from past plans — including a compromise reached just last October — is that the state would do away with the 10th-grade tests altogether. Starting next year, annual testing will only be done for grades three to nine.

The proposal would stick with the 11th-grade exit test in language arts and math currently required by law — a mandate reinforced by the courts last winter.

Numerous questions were raised out of the gate by state board members, including why they were only seeing the latest proposal now, when it seems the administration is far along the process.

State officials had said they wanted the plan and its request for proposal (RFP) to testing companies approved by the board’s next monthly meeting in October. The typical RFP process takes roughly 18 months, they said, not to mention the tens of millions of dollars in state funding for testing each year.

What took so long?

“Your proposal, we are seeing it for the first time today,” said Andrew Mulvihill, the board’s vice president.

Repollet and his staff said they would work with the board, although they did not back off much on the planned timeframe.

“That is still our best operational plan,” said Diana Pasculli, the deputy assistant commissioner overseeing the plan. “We will have a lot of conversations with stakeholders and the board between now and October.”

“We’re at a point where we need to do something,” said Repollet.

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But process was just one part of the board’s protracted discussion yesterday. The plan was presented along with some mixed messages on how the state is doing under the current testing regimen.

On one hand, the state yesterday released the latest statewide results for the 2018-2019 school year that showed a leveling off of gains under the old PARCC tests, with only about half the students passing the math and language-arts exams.

Some numbers were very strong, including notable gains in high school math, while others showed little, if any, growth at all. Maybe most troubling, the gaps between different categories and races persisted unchanged.

We’re No. 1

On the other hand, New Jersey continues to rank near or at the top among states in terms of student performance. Education Week, the trade magazine, just yesterday released its own rankings that put New Jersey at No. 1 for the first time, although its measure puts a heavy weight on overall school spending as well.

“We must be doing something right, if we rank so consistently high,” said Kathy Goldenberg, the board’s president.

Few stakeholder groups reacted publicly yesterday to the testing plan, although some warned against moving too quickly.

“The Department of Education’s plan to issue an RFP this fall for a ‘next generation’ assessment is troubling, given the lack of information being provided about the intended assessment and without first having more a public statewide discussion on what should be included in the succeeding assessment,” read a joint statement from JerseyCAN and Better Education for Kids, two pro-reform groups that had pushed for more rigorous testing.

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