1-15-15 Education Issues in the News

Star Ledger - Give N.J.'s new PARCC tests a chance: Opinion

By Patricia Wright- Patricia Wright is executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.

As the calendar has now turned to 2015 and New Jersey students are getting ready to take the new PARCC tests, let’s take a closer look at what distinguishes the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career from the NJASK and HSPA, the standardized tests that New Jersey students have been taking for years.

New Jersey has had a long history of establishing state standards for instruction and conducting annual assessments to help schools ensure that students are meeting those standards. The Common Core State Standards and PARCC represent the next steps in this decades-old process.

PARCC is fully aligned with the Common Core and will more accurately gauge our students’ mastery of these new standards. PARCC data will help us monitor each student’s progress by helping to identify strengths and weaknesses. Schools can then respond accordingly with improvements in local curriculum, instruction and assessment. Our hope is that PARCC will fulfill its promise to provide exactly what many educators and parents have been asking for when it comes to standardized tests -- relevant, significant, real world assessment that will provide meaningful feedback so that parents and educators can make informed decisions.

Schools have always been and should continue to be accountable for student learning. However, there is understandable heightened anxiety this year about using a new test as the basis for educator evaluation. That is why we are grateful to the leaders in the state Legislature and the New Jersey Department of Education, who listened to the concerns of educational stakeholders, including the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, and have wisely decreased the weight that these new test scores will have on evaluation ratings. As we study the results of the first few years of PARCC implementation, the dialogue on the impact of student achievement scores on educator effectiveness scores needs to continue.

Issues of accountability have also led to concerns that teachers will “teach to the test,” narrowing what kids learn. Fortunately, this apprehension is unfounded because of the way PARCC works. No longer will a focus on “test-prep strategies” such as “eliminate one answer you know is wrong and guess from the remaining possibilities” work. We acknowledge that transitioning to this new way of assessing will take time, but it is a worthwhile transition that must take place to prepare students to face the challenges of the 21st century.

Legitimate concerns about testing times have also been raised by both educators and parents.

Another major difference with PARCC is that it will be administered electronically. In order to prepare for PARCC, school districts across the state have been upgrading their technology infrastructure, training teachers to integrate the newest technologies into the curriculum, and providing computer-based test-taking opportunities to students as practice. That is good news. Fully embedding the use of technology into classrooms is no longer an option. It’s a necessity.

Legitimate concerns about testing times have also been raised by both educators and parents. PARCC will be administered during a “20-day window” of time in the spring. That does not mean there will be 20 days of testing. This simply means that each district can choose when to administer these tests any time during this 20-day window. This flexibility allows all schools the opportunity to compose a schedule that works best for them with the least disruption of instructional time.

It must also be acknowledged that the actual length of time students will spend taking the PARCC assessments will be longer than the time spent taking the NJASK or HSPA. However, if the promise of PARCC is achieved, the scope and quality of data that educators, students and parents will receive from this effort will justify this investment in time.

It is important to remember that this is only year one of PARCC testing, and NJPSA urges New Jersey’s leadership to continue to make the necessary adjustments throughout this process to ensure that all reforms – Common Core, PARCC and educator evaluation, lead to higher levels of student achievement.


NJ Spotlight - EVERYTHING’S GOING GREAT FOR CAMDEN’S STATE-RUN PUBLIC SCHOOLS, RIGHT?...Despite governor’s upbeat assessment, the answer depends on who’s answering the question



Improvements in Camden’s state-run public schools were trumpeted by Gov. Christie during this week’s State of the State address as one of his administration’s major accomplishments.

But was his assessment accurate? That’s a trickier question to answer.

Christie was brief but clear in his praise, citing the state’s takeover of the school district under his watch as a mark of progress in a city that has long been the poster child for the worst urban decay.

But the full story of the first full year of the state’s takeover of the Camden schools district is more complicated, with the gains more nuanced and plenty of challenges still ahead.

State-appointed Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, among those invited to the State of the State address, said yesterday that he was honored to be highlighted by the governor and continues to appreciate the support.

He said there was much to be proud of in the district, including improvements in safety, as well as other tangible measures, such as an improved graduation rate.

“It’s certainly nice to have the governor’s support,” Rouhanifard said a day after the speech. “[Improvement to the schools] is a really hard and complex issue, but it means a lot to have his support.”

But Rouhanifard didn’t downplay the challenges, saying that while the district has made some significant gains, there is much to be accomplished.

He didn’t list the tasks ahead, but they include pending contract talks with all of the district’s major unions and a budget shortfall that puts further layoffs firmly on the table. Last year, Rouhanifard laid off more than 300 staffers, including teachers.

Rouhanifard noted that the district’s graduation rate rose to 62 percent last year, an increase of about six points.

“But at the same time, that is still more than a third of students who are not graduating on time,” he noted.

Among the most contentious issues in Camden is the growth of charter schools under the new Urban Hope Act, which cleared the way for charter networks to set up neighborhood schools in the district.

Three large charter networks have won approval for as many as 15 new schools, and a recent extension of the law has opened the way for more.

Christie on Tuesday praised the new law for giving Camden families more education options.

Rouhanifard said it has been a success so far, especially in serving a cross-section of the city’s population. He cited one of the new charter networks, Mastery Schools, for taking in a large number of students with special-education needs. Mastery is located in the Pyne Poynt School building, along with the district's school, and Rouhanifard said the two principals and staffs have worked well together.

“We are making sure that it is not a tale of two cities,” he said. “We didn’t want kids walking in to see two different schools.”

But Rouhanifard said there’s no move afoot to expand the so-called “renaissance schools” in the district. Under the law's extension, the district has the option to put out a new request for proposals for additional schools, but Rouhanifard said there have been no such discussions.

“At this point, we have our hands full with the existing [district] schools,” he said.

For all the praise, there is hardly a consensus on the state takeover. Critics have maintained that the Christie is seeking a private takeover of the public schools.

“Camden public schools are at the moment being dismantled by the New Jersey Department of Education,” said Jose Delgado, a former local board member and now-frequent critic of the administration.

Delgado said Camden schools still face diminished resources, and that the growth of the charter schools has been at the expense of the district schools.

As the charter schools continue to expand, he alleged, the district will be left to serve the most disadvantaged children.

“They talk a good game, but the reality is the district is not addressing the needs of the Camden school children,” he said.

But the president of the local school board – now relegated to being an advisory board under the state’s control – said Christie’s steps are so far so good.

“I’m a Democrat and [Christie’s] a Republican, but he’s taking care of the children of Camden,” said Kathryn Blackshear, the board president. “I think in partnership with the mayor and Mr. Paymon, we are turning around.”

Blackshear said there are plenty of hurdles ahead, especially when it comes to funding, but there had been clear progress since the state’s takeover – if nothing more than a new sense of pride.

“Are we perfect? No, but we are a lot better than where we were a year ago,” she said.