TRENTON, NJ— Lawmakers on a joint legislative panel expressed concerns and questioned Gov. Phil Murphy’s rush to phase out a statewide standardized exam, calling for meetings to be held and more data to be provided.
State education commissioner Lamont Repollet appeared before a joint hearing of the Senate and Assembly Education committees on Monday to testify and answer questions about the future of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam.
The skepticism among lawmakers was bipartisan, and it appears unlikely that the Repollet will be able to scale back the use of the PARCC exam as quickly as he had been expecting.
His appearance before the joint committee came less than a week after the state board of education tabled a vote that would cut four out of six English and math standardized tests in high school level.
State Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), who chairs the Senate Education Committee, called for the State Board of Education to postpone the vote. Ruiz announced plans to hold a meeting with key stakeholders to “figure out what is going to be the best practice for the state.”
“I think this is a reset, a restart button, and one that … affords us all an opportunity to really set the bar, as New Jersey has often done, to create the next generation of tests,” Ruiz said, adding that she did not expect to see the matter on the Board of Education's October meeting agenda.
The hearing at times was contentious as the Commissioner was challenged to explain the rush to end tests that he said were going to be replaced by “next generation” tests that have yet to be identified. Repollett acknowledged that transition out of PARCC to a new statewide exam would be two- to three-year process.
“Our objective was to transition from PARCC,” Repollet said at one point. “I think it’s not a secret that the governor is adamant about ending PARCC.”
However, Ruiz said the approach to just end PARCC without empirical evidence was problematic.
“That's where the first step was taken in the wrong direction. The charge should have been: let's look at where we are in the state, how is our high standard meeting up with our assessments? Are we maximizing the most potential out of it? Are we streamlining how we put it out there? Are students testing too long? Can we get the resources back in time?”
Murphy, who ran on a platform of eliminating the statewide exam on day one of his tenure, announced in July plans to eliminate all but the federal minimum allowed for testing high school students. Under Repollet's proposal, the PARCC exam would largely remain the same for students in third through eighth grade with adjustments only being made to testing time.
"Any changes made to assessments in the state must be thoughtful and, most importantly, data driven," Ruiz said. "We cannot simply roll back assessments. We need to do it in a way that continues to benefit all students, and raise our standards across the state. Working together we can find an effective and long-term solution.”
Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden, Burlington), who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, said that rolling back the PARCC exam to the federal minimum standards “is not going to continue to move New Jersey and our New Jersey students in the right direction.”
“I’m not so sure about your strategy,” Lampitt said to Repollet. “I’m very, very concerned about this.”
Repollet said the scaling back of the exam allows for high school students to prepare for life after graduation.
“We feel they’ve been tested enough,” Repollet said, adding that currently, high school students are taking two to three standardized tests a year and that the PARCC test did not measure college and career readiness.
But some legislators weren’t having it.
“We are literally having the tale of two education systems based on our zip codes in our state, and no matter how progressive we want to say we are, the data is not indicating that we are as progressive as we want to be,” said Senator Troy Singleton (D-Burlington)
“We get too caught up sometimes in just the conversation around tests and forgetting that there are generations of kids who are not prepared to succeed in this world, and if we keep fighting over what the name of a test is called, there are still generations of kids who are not prepared to succeed in this world,” Singleton said, calling into question what the elimination of the tests might mean for the state’s most vulnerable students.
“Being able to close the achievement gaps based on social economics and racial demographics should be what keeps many of us up at night,” Singleton said.
Lampitt also questioned the Education Department’s plan to reduce teacher evaluation based on Student Growth Percentile (SGP) down from 30 percent to 5 percent, rather than helping the teachers reach the standard.
Repollet said only about 20 percent of teachers statewide are evaluated using the SGP from the PARCC exam. “It's not fair to those other educators,” Repollet said.
Following the hearing, a coalition of organizations that included the New Jersey Education Association, Save our Schools New Jersey and the Education Law Center held a press conference offering their reaction to the hearing, and called for the state Board of Education to vote on the Murphy administration's proposal.
“We’re very concerned about how these assessments have narrowed the curriculum in our schools, have changed what our children and learn,” Julie Borst, executive director of Save our Schools said.
But not everyone agrees. Education groups JerseyCAN and Better Education for Kids are concerned that the proposed changes “rob parents of a critical tool that can help them measure their children’s academic performance as compared to their peers.”
They also cautioned that “eliminating tests without already having a high-quality objective tool to assess students’ college and career readiness in place is a piecemeal approach that will lead to confusion in the field.”