N.J. is close to killing two standardized tests for 100K students. Here’s why

Posted Oct 20, 2019

When your typical 10th grader enters sophomore year in New Jersey next school year, Gov. Phil Murphy wants two fewer standardized tests to be waiting for her. Sounds great for the student — and presumably for test-fatigued parents and educators, right?

Yet it will only happen if state officials can find consensus on an issue that’s long stoked division.

Murphy’s administration says it wants to eliminate the math and English exams formerly known as PARCC for about 100,000 students, as Murphy seeks to fulfill his signature education campaign promise to reduce standardized testing. The state Board of Education, however, has yet to sign off — and some state board members remain unconvinced that less testing is actually better.

The controversial vote that would settle the matter could come as soon as Monday morning, when the board will hold a special meeting.

Even after years of unrest over the amount of time schools spend on standardized testing, there’s no guarantee Murphy gets the votes he needs.

“What’s wrong with giving an assessment in 10th grade?” asked board Vice President Andrew Mulvihill at a recent meeting. “How is this bad?”

Sen. Teresa Ruiz, chair of the Senate’s Education Committee, recently came out against the the plan, calling it “irresponsible.”

“I think maybe political promises were made to reduce testing, so randomly the 10th grade exam was selected,” Ruiz, D-Essex, said.

Murphy and State Department of Education officials remain steadfast in their argument. They say that students will still be tested from third grade through ninth grade, giving the state plenty of data on their performance. And, in reality, that data isn’t as useful as the state had hoped it would be for gauging student’s college and career readiness, said Linda Eno, an assistant state education commissioner.

“These tests don’t have the promise or have not fulfilled the promise that we thought we would when we started down this path,” she told the state board earlier this month.

Since the inception of PARCC in 2014-15, New Jersey has tested students in grades 3-11 in English and 3-8 in math, as well as high school students enrolled in Algebra I, Algebra II and Geometry. But those exams — now called the New Jersey Student Learning Assessments — drew fierce resistance from many teachers and parents, who argued the state was overwhelming schools and overworking students, all for test scores they say don’t tell the whole story of a student’s abilities.

The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, agrees with the Murphy administration that the tests are not a reliable measure of student performance, spokesman Steve Baker said.

“But they are taking away a tremendous amount of time from teaching and learning, they are causing tremendous levels of stress for students and they are negative to our students and public schools," he said.

Murphy pledged during his 2017 campaign to “scrap PARCC Day 1.” He’s since shortened and renamed the exams, but the state won’t roll out a replacement until spring of 2022, after the next election.

Though Murphy’s administration has tried putting high school exams on the chocking block, it has been hamstrung by two keys laws. A federal law requires schools to test students in their reading and math courses least during in high school, and a state law requires a high school proficiency test in 11th grade that students must pass to graduate.

The state’s latest compromise proposal, revealed this fall, maintains ninth grade testing to meet the federal law and 11th grade testing to meet the state law. Testing for 10th graders would be eliminated to reduce the testing burden on schools and students.

“This is an imperfect plan that represents our best thinking... within the legal, logistical and political parameters that we as a state agency must work,” Eno told the state board.

But several board members have said they aren’t yet convinced and don’t want to lose test scores from exams such as Geometry, which many 10th graders take. Only about 33 percent of students statewide scored proficient on the exam last school year, according to state data.

“I do feel that there is a missed opportunity here in not taking the time or taking the opportunity to potentially see how our students are doing in 10th grade,” said Arcelio Aponte, another state board member.

The board hopes to make a decision by early November at the latest, President Kathy Goldenberg said.

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