Freehold, SOS-NJ, and Valerie Strauss: An Example of the Proliferation of Fake News

You know fake news is being normalized when an organization that flaunts its supposedly grassroots progressive pedigree engages in Trumpery. Okay, maybe that’s a little harsh. But Save Our Schools-NJ really needs to check its facts before it misleads its followers about New Jersey high school graduation requirements.

Here’s the timeline. On November 21st, Charles Sampson, the Superintendent of Freehold Regional High School District, posted a piece on the district website that (still!) says,

NJs current schedule of standardized tests extends far beyond federal requirements. With the introduction this year of science assessment, we have jumped the proverbial shark. A NJ high school junior will sit for approximately 13 hours of testing between mid-April and mid-June. This does not include AP, SAT, ACT exams. In fact, current juniors who have already taken the biology exam as 9th graders, will now take a four-hour field test in the sciences even though they have already taken the federally required assessment!

The NJSLA-S will have teeth-in fact, it will be comprehensive and there are plans to include it as a graduation assessment requirement (my emphasis).

As a superintendent, I am gravely concerned. As a parent, I am outraged.

On November 22nd, SOS-NJ pasted the piece on its Facebook page with this little drumroll:

Did you know our DOE is in the process of implementing new standardized tests for science? If they get their way, students will have to pass this test to graduate. As we have seen with PARCC, students may be required to take a “refresher” course based on standardized assessment performance, and test prep will be substituted for authentic, inquiry based learning. 

Two weeks later Valerie Strauss reposted Superintendent Sampson’s piece on “The Answer Sheet,” a “column” that the usually sensible Washington Post runs under her byline but is actually an anthology of anti-reform swill written by other people. I’ve heard that Diane Ravitch tweeted it out but couldn’t bear to wade through her twitter account.

Here’s the problem, which perhaps accounts for much of the “fake news” deluge. Superintendent Sampson, whom I’m sure is a great superintendent, had his facts wrong. SOS-NJ amplified his error. Strauss copied, pasted, and tweeted the fake news to her 40,000 followers. Like a computer virus, false and inflammatory misinformation crowds out N.J.’s efforts to keep students on track for life after high school.

So, as a public service, here is the truth. The source of these facts is the New Jersey Department of Education, specifically Pete Shulman, the Deputy Commissioner. I sent him an email asking about this “news” that N.J. high school students would have to pass a state science test in order to graduate because I hadn’t heard that before and thought it inconsistent with the DOE’s commitment to honoring the concerns of parents about excessive testing.

Mr. Shulman forwarded to me his reply to an email from someone [name redacted] who had posed the same question to him.

From Mr. Shulman:

As you may know, I serve as Deputy Commissioner with the NJDOE.  Over my 6+ years in the Department, I can not identify one statute, regulation, policy or guidance document stating the intent to make our new science assessment a high school graduation requirement.  Further, not one of my colleagues nor our Commissioner can cite such “plans” either.  In fact, we have never made this statement and it is simply not true.

Conversely, we have taken a very lengthy, methodical roll-out to the new science assessment.  A few key facts:

 

  • As you know, and as Mr. Sampson states, testing in science once in elementary, middle and high school is a federal requirement in ESSA.  Close to $900M in federal aid to NJ, the majority of which goes to economically disadvantaged and special needs students, is predicated on us following the law.  

 

  • New Jersey adopted the Next Generation Science Standards in 2014 and our schools have been making curricular and instructional shifts over the past 3 years.  Having seen some of the new science instruction in person, I can attest the work of our NJ educators is very impressive, and the students seem to really enjoy the phenomena-based lessons.  (I would encourage you and your colleagues to visit our schools and see for this great work for yourself).

 

  • In Spring 2018, we are planning to initiate our first roll-out of a new science assessment in elementary, middle and high school.  This will be a field test without state accountability tied to it (and, of course, not tied to any graduation requirements).  We intend to learn from this field test and, assuming the test goes well, we intend to have our initial baseline for the assessment take place in Spring 2019.  Further, state and federal accountability systems are typically a reflection on the prior year.  In turn, the earliest that state accountability could start would be is 2020.  To be clear, this would be 6 years after the standards were adopted and, again, there are currently no plans to tie the science assessment to student graduation requirements.

As I am sure you will attest to, the current discourse in this country around education (and most every other civic and social issue) is made more difficult by the inability of readers to distinguish between facts and fiction.  Mr. Sampson’s comments are, at best, careless and, at worst, a deliberate attempt to misinform the public.  Knowing Mr. Sampson and having respect for him as an educator, I assume it was simply the former.

In other words, New Jersey will have no science testing requirement for a diploma. The Sampson piece is wrong. The SOS-NJ Facebook post is wrong. The Strauss copy-and-paste is wrong. Yet that’s what’s out there.

Apparently someone must have communicated this real news to SOS-NJ because on December 7th, two weeks after the group’s original Facebook post and actually the night before Valerie Strauss cut-and-pasted Sampson’s column, SOS posted a correction.  But its original Facebook posting is still there, without any hint that a reader would need to scroll up two weeks to find out what is really up at the DOE regarding science assessments.

Superintendent Sampson’s piece on his district site remains unchanged. It still says, “there are plans to include it as a graduation assessment requirement,” even though, according to Deputy Commissioner Shulman, someone from his office spoke directly to the Superintendent and explained the errors in his article.  Likewise, Strauss has posted no correction.

This would all be a roll-the-eyes moment, yet another alternative fact rippling out across our clickbait cyberspace. But here’s the thing: we’re supposed to be the good guys, not the ones claiming that his inauguration crowd was biggest and Roy Moore is a patriot, that tax cuts for the wealthy equal tax cuts for the poor, that New Jersey is dismissing parent concerns and requiring a science test for high school graduation. We’re supposed to take the high road.

But Superintendent Sampson, SOS-NJ, and Valerie Strauss took the low road. It would so easy for a district article to be amended so that it aligns with actual facts, for SOS to append its correction — and props to them for doing it at all — to the original post, for Strauss to take down Sampson’s column. But they didn’t.  We don’t expect anything else from Trump. We should have higher expectations for those who define themselves as education advocates.

What do you think?

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