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1-5-14 Likely Education Issues In 2015 Pipeline

NJ Spotlight - 2015: Education in NJ Will See the Consequences of Earlier Policy Decisions…PARCC, school funding, teacher evaluations, takeover districts -- it’s going to be an interesting year for New Jersey public schools ‘School funding on the front burner… “But within that larger context, schools are also feeling significant challenges under the state’s 2 percent property-tax caps, which have left little leeway, especially when it comes to rising special education costs. A state task force is at work looking at options for how to pay for these programs, and it should bring more attention -- and pressure -- to the issue…” ’

John Mooney | January 5, 2015


At the start of 2014, questions about state education policy centered on whether Gov. Chris Christie’s second term would be as eventful as his first.

At the start of 2015, one of the biggest questions is whether Christie will even be around to finish his second term.

It should be a busy year for education policy and politics in New Jersey, with Christie’s fate -- or at least his intentions -- near the top of the list. But the state also stands at several crossroads when it comes to its public schools.

The following lists several of the big issues, well as a few that are likely to come in under the radar:

PARCC testing is here

Not only will 2015 answer whether New Jersey’s schools are ready for the new PARCC testing, it could also be an important gauge as to whether the public is ready.

The testing, developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers (PARCC), will be most districts’ first wholesale experience of online assessments, and concerns have been raised as to whether both the technology and the instruction is ready for the change.

Any new testing often comes with significant impact on results, too, and state officials have been bracing for the likelihood of a drop in scores that could prove a gauge of the public’s confidence in the measures.

In addition, a fledgling but real backlash already exists from families that are pulling their children out of the testing in protest for its longer duration and higher stakes. The administration has played down the protest, but it appears to be growing and becoming only more emboldened as the PARCC tests approach.

School funding on the front burner

It’s a perennial topic: How will New Jersey schools fare in terms of state funding? It hasn’t gone very well the past few years, as funding after steep cuts in Christie’s first year has yet to return to 2009 levels for a vast majority of districts.

But this year brings some new important nuances to the issue.

Christie will present a fiscal 2016 budget this winter in which school aid is the largest piece of the pie, and few expect significant increases for schools -- if any at all -- while the state faces deep holes in its pension liability and its transportation infrastructure costs.

But within that larger context, schools are also feeling significant challenges under the state’s 2 percent property-tax caps, which have left little leeway, especially when it comes to rising special education costs.

A state task force is at work looking at options for how to pay for these programs, and it should bring more attention -- and pressure -- to the issue.

Teacher evaluation faces its consequences

Last year was an important one for the rollout of the state’s new educator-evaluation system, with districts being required for the first time to follow a standardized path for judging their teachers and administrators.

This year will see the first of the consequences.

The 2012 tenure reform law requires districts to bring tenure charges against those with ratings of ”ineffective” for two consecutive years, and two years later, 2015 will be the first test to see if districts will move on the opportunity.

Meanwhile, a segment of teachers -- mostly in elementary and middle schools -- will see for the first time their ratings even partially influenced by how students fare on the new PARCC testing.

Takeover districts tested

The state’s control of the Newark, Camden, and Paterson districts (and partial control in Jersey City) has led to what may be New Jersey’s hottest education debates over the past few years, and 2015 is unlikely to be much different.

But 2015 could prove pivotal to what happens next.

Newark especially may be at a turning point, with embattled superintendent Cami Anderson on notice from the administration that starting in 2015 she will be under yearly reviews of her performance and what has been a stormy relationship with the community.

She also faces her own budget challenges, as well as the end of a labor contract with teachers that was historic for its performance bonuses but far less popular within the district’s rank and file.

In Camden, the newest to the state-controlled class, schools will continue to adjust to the changes brought by state-appointed superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard. It will also be the first full year of the new quasi-charter “renaissance schools” in the district, with more likely on the way under an extension of the law in 2014.

Christie policies go national

The governor’s education policies have been keenly felt within the state for the past four years, but if and when he decides to run for president in the coming months, those policies will have a national audience as well.

He is sure to play up those that fit his campaign message, especially the bipartisan tenure law of 2012 and the state’s aggressiveness in districts like Newark and Camden.

But others may prove a tougher sell to more conservative elements of the Republican party, including a pension reform gone sour and Christie’s embrace of the Common Core State Standards that have become deeply unpopular on the right.

With former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush looking more and more likely to join the race and compete for the moderate wing of the GOP, it will be interesting to see if Christie tries to distinguish himself by breaking from Common Core or other more moderate policies.

Issues not getting the attention

These are hardly the only issues that will draw attention. The Legislature will again spend a lot of time talking about revisions to the state’s charter school law, but that is becoming a familiar exercise without much tangible result so far.

And Christie’s controversial caps on superintendent pay will continue to be debated, although 2016 will probably be a more pivotal year when the caps technically expire.

There are a few other issues that could have an impact, even though they are not getting as much attention.

Among them will be the expiration of the 2011 health-benefit reforms that have seen school employees paying more for their insurance coverage, which opens the way to negotiations.

Preschool expansion could get a boost with the state securing additional federal funding in late 2014, and early-childhood education is one of the few issues to have support across party lines.

Just to keep things interesting, the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union, has openly said it will press for reforms in teacher preparation and induction. And others have called for more accountability when it comes to these programs, including the first ratings of colleges and universities for the effectiveness of the teachers they train.

Star Ledger – PARCC leads N.J. schools to cancel midterms, finals..."The impact of eliminating midterms and finals is a mixed bag, said John Mucciolo superintendent of Glen Ridge School District.If approached correctly, midterms allow students to draw connections between seemingly unrelated lessons they have learned in class, Mucciolo said. But all too often students are simply cramming, he said..."

Adam Clark | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com The Star-Ledger
Email the author | Follow on Twitter
on January 05, 2015 at 7:00 AM, updated January 05, 2015 at 7:13 AM

 Students at some New Jersey high schools can rest easy this winter without having to worry about midterm exams.

But spring will bring an even bigger challenge: The new state standardized test that promises to consume a lot of classroom prep time.

A growing number of schools are canceling traditional exams to regain instructional time they say is being lost to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, the state’s new standardized assessment to be administered this spring.

Livingston High School, among other schools, has scrapped midterms. Millburn students wont have to take finals. And Glen Ridge is doing away with both.

“PARCC is taking too many days, all of which results in the loss of instructional time,” said James O’Neill, superintendent of Livingston Township School District.

New Jersey’s previous state assessment test for high school students, the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA), was administered only once and only to 11th-graders, superintendents said.

The new computerized test, aligned to Common Core standards, will be given twice, once in March and once in May, to all students in grades 3-11. High school students are likely to finish the tests in about seven or eight hours, according to the state, but the testing periods are spread out across several school days.

“All of the sudden we have injected more testing into the high school schedule,” said James Crisfield, superintendent of Millburn Township School District. “We have a lot of PARCC when we used to have a little bit of HSPA.”

In many high schools, midterms and finals were traditionally administered over the course of four or five days and teachers spent several class periods reviewing during the week before the exam. With the introduction of PARCC, Millburn parents worried students would be spending too much time in testing or test-prep, Crisfield said.

“Frankly, I was very sympathetic to those concerns,” he said.

The value of midterms

The impact of eliminating midterms and finals is a mixed bag, said John Mucciolo superintendent of Glen Ridge School District.

If approached correctly, midterms allow students to draw connections between seemingly unrelated lessons they have learned in class, Mucciolo said. But all too often students are simply cramming, he said.

Glen Ridge High School has seventh and eight grade students, who also will take PARCC exams, and the additional testing time across five grade levels worried both faculty and administration, Mucciolo said.

“Sometimes we need to examine our assumptions,” he said of the value of midterms. “The PARCC testing has prompted us to do this.”

Reducing test anxiety created by midterms and finals will be beneficial for students, said Maureen Connolly, an assistant professor of education at The College of New Jersey.

Though the tests have been a staple of a high school education, they are losing value as schools focus more on what skills students need after graduation, she said.

“Do you do something that is assessing what you have been doing for the past four months in your job?” Connolly said. “What would be the equivalent of (a midterm) in life outside of school?”

Even before PARCC, some teachers believed that midterms and finals took away too much instructional time, said Anthony Rosamilia president of both the Essex County and Livingston education associations.

But Rosamilia, speaking only on his own behalf, said he is skeptical about eliminating the teacher-designed tests.

The PARCC tests are significant because they are high-stakes assessments for school districts and certain teachers, whose evaluations are partially based on their students’ performance. But unlike a midterm, teachers won’t see PARCC results in time to give students meaningful feedback, Rosamilia, a history teacher, said.

“If a student gets a certain grade on a midterm we can give accurate information to parents and to this student about where they are,” Rosamilia said.

Replacing traditional tests

Schools that eliminate a diagnostic test, like a midterm or final, should replace it with another method of analyzing student learning, said Steve Wollmer, spokesperson for the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

That’s not always easy, some educators said.

Bernards Township School District eliminated midterms and finals a few years ago in an attempt to maximize instructional time, Superintendent Nick Markarian said.

It replaced those tests with quarterly exams, given on days when students had their seven other classes for abbreviated 20-minute periods. The stress of a special test in the midst of regular classes was distracting for students, Markarian said.

“If you were meeting for 20 minutes with seven of your classes and then in your eighth class you had a quarterly exam, how much are you really focusing on regular classes?” Markarian said.

Bernards eliminated the quarterlies this year.

Verona High School, which is abandoning midterms, won’t replace them with new smaller tests, said Charles Miller, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction.

Instead, the school has focused on bolstering its unit tests by adding questions that have more than one answer or require students to cite evidence to support their answer. Those tests should push students well beyond traditional recall in the way midterms have in the past, Miller said.

The New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association believes more schools will consider changes to midterms and finals in the wake of the PARCC exams, spokesperson Dan Higgins said. School leaders should have meaningful conversations with parents and community members to work out the best local approach, he added.

State and local tests must work together in a smart, systematic way to give teachers and parents the best possible feedback, said Michael Yaple, a spokesperson for the Department of Education.

“As educators discover the value of the new PARCC assessments, they may find it makes sense to rely less on other tests that are used locally,” Yaple said.

Adam Clark may be reached at adam_clark@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on twitter at @realAdamClark. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

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