Last month the State Board of Education considered some big changes to our requirements for a high school diploma. The recommendations were proffered by Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet and were widely anticipated to be adopted during the meeting.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, the Board wisely decided to delay the decision and continue discussions in September. They must know that there’s far more at stake than rejiggering standardized tests that NJEA, Education Law Center, and unwoke parents in high-income communities love to hate.
These policy decisions aren’t supposed to be about the preferences of lobbying groups. They’re supposed to be about what’s best for our children, about how New Jersey can improve student preparation for life after high school, about how the state can most clearly convey to families the quality of individual public schools and districts, and, perhaps, even measure — to a tiny degree — teacher effectiveness.
So let’s look at Repollet’s recommendations from the perspective of whether they would help our students and families or whether it would hurt them.
For context, let’s keep in mind that, as reported by Hechinger, 46 percent of N.J. first-time college students (not including transfer students) have to take non-credit remedial courses because of lack of college and career readiness. And for those of you who successfully tune out NJ education politics, our adoption of PARCC tests was greeted with a fireball of resentment from anti-accountability groups that hurled anti-PARCC and pro-opt-out billboards and TV commercials, all funded by teacher dues. (You can stick a fork in the NJ opt-out movement: it’s done. NJ kids and teachers are not quite as fragile as SOS-NJ would have you believe.)
Back to the Commissioner’s recommendations (I’m using my eduwonk translator for easy reading) and their potential impact. If you want to get technical, they are amendments to N.J.S.A. 18A:7A-10 through 14, 18A:7C-1 et seq., 18A:7E-2 through 5, 18A:35-4.2 and 4.7, and 18A:59-5.
Recommendation 1: Let’s not call them PARCC tests anymore. Let’s call them State ELA [English Language Arts] and Math assessments.
Commentary: What’s in a name? A rose is a rose is a rose. Go for it.
Recommendation 2: Enforce more accommodations and modifications for students with disabilities (including those with 504 plans) and English Language Learners.
Commentary: Will this help or hurt kids? It depends. If we lower our expectations for any specific group, we hurt them. I work with an education blogger in NYC (Alina Adams) who emigrated from Russia at age 7 and was fluent in English within six months. Now she’s a best-selling author. So I suppose it’s all in the implementation, in a district’s ability to differentiate between students with obstacles and whether they learn with ease or don’t. I’ll confess that this recommendation worries me a bit, especially as the mom of a kid with multiple disabilities who learned as much as he did only through high expectations and accurate assessments.
Recommendation 3: Instead of requiring NJ high school students to sit for six tests to earn a high school diploma, (ELA 9, ELA 10, ELA 11, Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra II), they will only have to take and pass two: ELA 10 and Algebra 1. Remember, they never had to pass the other four to get a high school diploma but now they won’t even have to take them.
Commentary: Really? From taking six standardized tests to taking two? Who decided that meeting the minimum testing required under federal education law (ESSA) is best for our kids? And if students will take ELA 10, wouldn’t they and their teachers benefit from seeing results from ELA 9? In addition, proficiency in Algebra II is a necessity for adequate SAT and ACT scores, as well as preparation for college-level math. Let’s also remember that about 37,000 students each year take Algebra 1 in middle school but only about 15,000 students persist through AP Calculus. Why do we lose more than 20,000 students who were on track to take our most advanced math courses? Because “Algebra 2” isn’t really “Algebra 2.” (See here from the Brookings Institute.) Wouldn’t it be helpful to measure their proficiency and unveil the charade? (Not according to the Commissioner.)
Recommendation 4: If students fail the “not-the-PARCC” tests in ELA 10 and/or Algebra 1, they can instead take “corresponding substitute competency tests,” like the SAT, ACT, Accuplacer, or the military eligibility test. What does it mean to “pass” the SAT? Ah: glad you asked. The cut scores, say the recommendations, will be “determined by the Commissioner.”
Commentary: Seriously? Time for a little history. Back in the previous administration, the DOE realized that NJ made the transition to PARCC too quickly, before students had been fully exposed to our new standards (renamed NJ Student Learning Standards). So the DOE created a transition period, meant to last from 2018 to 2021, while students and teachers got up to speed on what they’d need for success after high school. In the earlier parts of the transition period, there were lots of options for students — all those “substitute competency tests” with relatively low cut scores — and then, by 2021 when students had the benefit of full exposure to the Common Core, those extra options would fade out. Eligibility for a diploma would require either passing state tests or using a portfolio assessment.
But Repollet is proposing to make this transition period permanent, suspending our children in unnecessarily-low expectations despite full exposure to high standards.
Here’s how it would work. If a student fails, say, the Algebra 1 not-the-PARCC test, then he or she can take the SAT. What does he or she need to meet the math qualifications for a NJ high school diploma? A 440. But according to the College Board, a 440 is the 25th percentile for a “nationally representative sample” and 22nd percentile for someone actually taking the SAT. A 440 in math is below a ninth-grade level.
As a NJ parent, I’m insulted. Is the DOE really telling us that a NJ high school diploma signifies the math level of a 13-year-old?
Or, hey, why not try setting the cut score even lower? Don’t you get 200 points for filling out your name?
The marker for college-readiness in math is a 530. In 2017 the NJ average math SAT score was 552. This is like a game of limbo: how low can we go?
The Commissioner states that his recommendations will “[ensure that] students master the knowledge and skills needed to enter the workforce, job training programs, or higher education.” But that’s simply not true. These recommendations will ensure that we’ve set the bar so low that eligibility for a high school diploma is a measure of seat time, not proficiency.
Maybe that’s what we want. Maybe we shouldn’t even have diploma qualifying tests. But if that’s the direction we want to go, then let’s not pretend that our diplomas represent readiness for anything.
One final note: a just-issued report from Educators for Excellence, “Voices from the Classroom,” surveyed a nationally-representative sample of 1,000 teachers. One of the questions regarded accountability. Here’s the consensus:
“Teachers believe student growth is the single most important factor in evaluating schools’ and teachers’ effectiveness but are interested in exploring nontraditional metrics.”
If we agreed with our teachers, we would care about student growth. We would honor our high standards and expect our students to rise to a quickly-changing job environment. We wouldn’t set a low bar and call it a day.
Yet that is what Commissioner Repollet is recommending to the State Board of Education. I hope the Board has more respect for N.J.’s students and families than the leader of the DOE.