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May 29, 2014

As another testing season winds down in New Jersey schools, policymakers are wrestling with a test of their own: how to manage growing concerns about the new high stakes assessments scheduled for next year.

This spring NJ students took familiar state tests, the NJASK (New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge) and the HSPA (High School Proficiency Assessment), for the last time. About ten percent of students also faced double testing, as they participated in field testing for new PARCC exams that will be given to all of the state’s students in 2015. The new computer-based tests carry high stakes for educators, schools and students.

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) is one of two multi-state consortia that received $350 million in federal funds to develop new tests aligned with the “Common Core” curriculum standards. Originally, PARCC included 24 states and the District of Columbia. But a recent Education Week survey found that “for a variety of reasons, including the length and cost of the tests,” only nine states and D.C. planned to use the PARCC exams next year. NJ is one of the nine.

The NJ Department of Education presented a rosy picture of the field testing during a recent State Board of Education meeting, and Acting Education Commissioner David Hespe told Senate Budget Committee members that 70% of the state’s districts had the technology needed to administer the tests. Other reports were less optimistic. A survey by the NJ Principals and Supervisors Association found that 80% of respondents experienced some technology problems during the field test and nearly 90% expressed varying degrees of anxiety about future PARCC testing.

The technology costs of the new testing are putting huge pressure on districts in a time of tight budgets. Governor Chris Christie’s proposed FY15 State Budget provides a minimal $10 per student in “PARCC readiness aid,” a figure unrelated to any study of actual costs. In fact, this token amount of aid may have been designed to head off an “unfunded mandate” challenge from school districts. Superintendent Richard Katz of Saddle Brook, one of several districts that had been contemplating filing a complaint with the New Jersey Council on Local Mandates, said the State “readiness” aid “isn't even close to the amount of money we spend to do this, but now it's a funded mandate.”

Other districts have reported spending large sums on technology and infrastructure to administer the PARCC tests, including Verona ($500,000), Princeton ($255,000), Flemington-Raritan ($400,000) and Bernards Township ($927,000).

Parents and educators have raised concerns that go beyond the costs associated with the new tests, including the consequences for educator evaluations and school performance rankings and the educational impact of the longer, more difficult tests on curriculum, instruction and student experience in schools.

For example, many are not aware that PARCC will require a major increase in standardized testing at the high school level with the introduction of six new exams, each with multiple parts. In place of the language arts and math portions of the HSPA, which students currently are required to take in 11th grade and must pass to earn a diploma, PARCC will require students to take language arts exams in grades 9, 10 and 11 and math exams in Algebra I and II and Geometry. Although the NJ Department of Education has proposed suspending the current high school graduation test requirement during the transition to PARCC, it has not yet put forward specific regulations to implement this policy or govern the use of PARCC scores for grades, course credit or student transcripts.

After the new tests are administered to all students next year, the Department will conduct a high stakes “standard setting” process by which “cut scores” for “proficiency,” “college readiness” and other categories of performance will be set. A lack of fairness and transparency around such standard setting has undermined the credibility of the new Common Core tests in neighboring states like New York, where this spring some 30,000 parents boycotted the tests as part of a growing “opt out” movement.

Such concerns have led to increasing pressure across the political spectrum. On May 15, the Assembly Education Committee unanimously passed legislation that would delay use of the new tests for accountability purposes and establish a task force to examine overlapping issues arising from the new curriculum, assessment and evaluation mandates. The bill, A-3081, which had 25 sponsors and drew unusual bipartisan support, is a response to growing complaints that the simultaneous rollout of the Common Core curriculum standards, the computer-based tests, and new evaluation mandates for educators comes without the resources, time and broad support needed for success.

In testimony before the Assembly Education Committee on A-3081, Stan Karp, Director of Education Law Center’s Secondary Reform Project, emphasized that while “New Jersey’s adoption and implementation of state curriculum standards has always been closely tied to efforts to equitably fund our public schools…there have not been any studies of the programs and services required to effectively implement the Common Core’s ‘college and career ready’ standards.” Moreover, “recent State budgets have not provided the funding necessary to deliver existing standards.”

“Raising standards without providing, or even identifying, the resources needed to deliver them sets schools and students up for frustration and failure instead of success,” Karp added.

The Senate Education committee is expected to take up the bill in June.  Additional legislation that would ban standardized testing in grades K-2(A-3079) and provide increased information about state and district testing policies to parents (A-3077) have been introduced, but will likely not be taken up by the Legislature until fall.

Legislative action on the delay bill could require revision of NJ’s No Child Left Behind waiver from the federal government, which is up for renewal at the end of the current school year. California, Idaho and Montana have received federal waivers to delay the use of new Common Core tests for accountability purposes. Could NJ be next?


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Press Contact: 
Stan Karp
Director, Secondary Reform Project 
973-624-1815, x28