I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Testing Chaos Continues in New Jersey

Here's an update from my last blog on the chaotic debate over New Jersey's high school exit exam:

Yesterday, after several delays, the state announced a settlement that at least clarifies the path to graduation for New Jersey's high school juniors and seniors:
New Jersey reached a settlement Friday that offers a clear path for juniors and seniors to graduate, after a court declared current public school standardized testing requirements illegal.
The settlement clears a path for about 170,000 juniors and seniors who had passed state exams and who the state said were "in limbo" after the court's decision.
Under the court-approved settlement, the state will allow high school juniors and seniors to graduate if they have passing scores on state PARCC exams or other approved standardized tests, such as the SAT, ACT or the military placement exam.
The agreement also provides the Department of Education with time to propose new graduation testing rules for the classes of 2021 and 2022, who are current freshman and sophomores. 
You'll recall that the appellate court declared that the PARCC Algebra I and English Language Arts (ELA) Grade 10 tests were, together, not an acceptable graduation test, because they're not a single test and they're not given in 11th grade, as the law says the graduation test should be.

But as I pointed out last time: a larger problem is that no one has ever shown these tests to be valid for the purpose laid out in the law. Psyshometricians will tell you this is a minimum requirement for any test: you have to show its outcomes are appropriate for a specific use.

The law says the test must "...measure those basic skills all students must possess to function politically, economically and socially in a democratic society." (N.J.S.A. 18A:7C-6.1.) But it's clear that the PARCC tests don't measure "basic skills." They set a much higher bar  -- a bar so high only 46 percent of test takers last year could meet it. There's simply no way to argue a test measures "basic skills" when its passing rate is so low.

I'll note here that the court did not rule on whether the content of the PARCC tests was valid for the purposes of an exit exam: the fact that the tests aren't a single exam and aren't necessarily given in Grade 11 was reason enough to strike down the regulations.

I suppose it was on this basis that State Senator Teresa Ruiz, long a proponent of the PARCC, introduced a bill that would have changed the law so that multiple tests given in any grade could be used as high school exit exams. But that still wouldn't have addressed the problem of determining whether the PARCC tests are valid for the purposes laid out in the law.

It also strikes me as highly problematic that Ruiz wanted to change a law, passed by the Legislature and signed by the Governor, to conform with administrative regulations. As Sarah Blaine pointed out in her excellent analysis of the court's ruling, regulations are supposed to follow from laws, not vice versa. Ruiz's bill, which was being rushed through in time to affect current high school seniors, was making changes to the law -- not the regulations -- so that the PARCC tests could be used in a way the court said was illegal.

Unfortunately, it seems like this agreement is doing the same thing: even after the court said, "Don't use these tests this way," the state is going to go ahead and do just that for the next two years.

I can understand that the plaintiffs in the case -- which was argued by the good folks at the Education Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union -- wanted to quickly remove any uncertainty for the students affected by this ongoing mess. But the fact remains that even though the court ruled these tests are not appropriate for use as graduation exams, they remain in place as just that.

I think this is deeply unfair for at least one reason: The state has not been providing the resources necessary for the majority of students to meet this new, higher standard.

The usual suspects have, of course, been making their case that New Jersey must have these tests in place to ensure that high school diplomas "mean something." They worry that without a rigorous exit exam, New Jersey -- consistently one of the highest-performing states in a variety of educational outcome measures -- will dumb down its standards and leave its students less than "college- and career-ready."

First of all: if there is any empirical evidence that high school exit exams, by themselves, improve educational outcomes, I haven't seen it. After all, weighing the pig doesn't fatten it up. Plenty of states don't have exit exams; some, like Connecticut, perform well in national and international comparisons. Where, then, is the evidence exit exams lead to better outcomes?

Second: I often read op-eds like this and think the writers must believe that all we need to do to improve educational outcomes is just try a little harder. Those of us who actually work in schools, however, know it's never that simple. If a child shows up at the schoolhouse door hungry or ill or in stress, that child will have a disadvantage compared to others in academic outcomes. So if we want all of New Jersey's students to meet a "high" standard, we have to ask whether those students are arriving at school ready to meet that standard.

Further, we have to ask whether the school itself has the resources it needs to educate children to meet higher levels of achievement. Remember: New Jersey has not been providing its schools with what the state itself determined was necessary for children to achieve equal education opportunity.

Worse, that determination was made back when the standards were lower. Now, suddenly, "reformers" want to raise the bar, without the slightest thought as to whether schools might need even more resources to achieve even higher outcomes.

How can anyone possibly think it's fair to deny children a high school diploma when they've done everything that was asked of them -- stayed in school, went to class, passed their courses -- but the state hasn't done what it was supposed to do and fully fund their schools? 

Unfortunately, it's too late for the juniors and seniors: they'll have to soldier through the tests, or pay to take alternative assessments like the SAT or ACT, or slog through the onerous, expensive process of making a "portfolio." I don't see any benefit in forcing these young people and their families to go through all this; the argument about making their diplomas "mean something" is specious at best.

If one good thing comes from this agreement, however, it's that over the next several months New Jersey might finally get to have a real debate about testing, standards, and school funding. I'll be curious to see if those who've been pushing for harder tests and higher standards will fight just as hard for adequate and equitable funding for all schools.

ADDING: The op-ed in nj.com states:
"Twenty-two of our sister states require high school students to take an assessment in order to graduate."
Click through on the link, however, and you'll find that only 12 states require an exit exam. In 2017, Stan Karp, who knows as much as anyone about this stuff, put the number at 13.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Failure of State Control in Camden, NJ

In my last blog, I wrote about the NJ Auditor's report on Camden's "Renaissance" schools. These charter-district hybrids, run by three of the region's biggest charter operators -- Mastery, Uncommon, and KIPP -- were supposed to show definitively that charter schools could serve all of the children in a neighborhood. They weren't going to "skim the cream" any more; instead, they'd take every child, no matter their family background or educational need.

Well, it turns out the Renaissance promise was just a lot of hot air: according to the Auditor, fewer than half of neighborhood students are enrolled in their neighborhood renaissance school. Thanks to Camden's "universal enrollment" system, the Renaissance schools appear to be doing a completely different job than the public district schools.

How could this happen? Why didn't the Camden City Public Schools administration pick up on this problem? How could they have missed this? Weren't they paying attention?

As it so happens, the Auditor, Steven Eells, has been busy: not only did he and his staff examine the Renaissance schools -- they looked at the district as a whole. And what they found isn't very encouraging (all emphases below are mine):
The lack of continuity within and oversight of the district’s business office functions has resulted in a lack of control and accountability of the district’s finances. The lack of stability in administrative positions inhibited the development of long-term goals and the ability to establish and enforce internal controls to ensure district resources were expended in an efficient and effective manner and assets were properly safeguarded. The financial transactions included in our testing were related to the district’s programs and were reasonable; however, they were not always properly recorded in the accounting system, and there were many instances when requested documents could not be provided. We found programs lacking internal controls and proper oversight, significant deficiencies in the procurement process, and other issues requiring corrective action. Certain provisions of the Urban Hope Act included in our testing were complied with by the district with the exception of those related to enrollment.
Before we dive into this, let's step back and recall some history:

Way back in 2012 -- back when Chris Christie was making teacher bashing fashionable -- a couple of low-level bureaucrats in the NJ Department of Education came up with a plan for Camden's Schools. The idea was to take power away from the local school board -- which didn't have much power anyway as it had been subject to the direction of a state fiscal monitor since 2006 -- and shift control to the Christie administration and the State Board of Education. This would allow charter schools to flourish while CCPS schools were shuttered.

It's worth noting that the guys who came up with the plan were paid by California billionaire Eli Broad, who was the patron of then-Acting Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf. The next year, Christie went all-in on Camden and had the state take overt the district. The excuse was that Camden was such a failure, the state really had no choice. 

Christie proceeded to go out and get a very young fellow to be his new superintendent. Paymon Rouhanifard had, at best, six years of total experience in education, but apparently that's all he needed to take on arguably the toughest school leadership job in the state.

Rouhanifard left CCPS last year; when the Auditor discusses the state of Camden's schools, he's discussing Rouhanifard's legacy. I've already gone over the issues with the Renaissance schools' enrollments; let's look at what else the Auditor found in Camden:
  • The district failed to timely recover $2.5 million in utility costs, shared custodial and security services, and leased facilities and facility space provided to renaissance school operators. Additionally, actual custodial costs incurred by the district exceeded reimbursed amounts for fiscal years 2016 and 2017 by $245,000 and $217,000, respectively. 
  • Contracted preschool providers were overpaid $281,921 because the district did not make required payment adjustments during fiscal year 2017. 
  • Controls over expenditures need to be strengthened. The district’s failure to record all obligations promptly could result in unrecorded liabilities and cause the district to overspend budgeted funds. 
  • A vendor was paid a flat yearly fee of $1,638,104 to operate the district’s alternative school programs. The district failed to adequately monitor vendor payments, resulting in an overpayment of $151,300. Additionally, the district was not aware that contracted performance metrics and deliverables were not achieved. The district has taken over the alternative school programs, budgeting $280,000. 
  • Other areas of concern involve employee leave records, Camden County Technical Schools tuition, inventory controls, and various additional procurement deficiencies.
It's really no wonder that the Renaissance schools weren't being properly monitored -- The district itself was failing in its core responsibility to monitor its own finances.

Keep in mind that Rouhanifard, like Cerf, made his bones in the NYC school system under Mike Bloomberg and Joel Klein. This was the heyday of the "disruption" doctrine of school leadership -- and disruption meant kicking out people who had built their careers in the school system and replacing them with hotshots who would come in turn over a few art supply carts.

The problem with this mindset is that institutions like school districts really need stable, experienced leadership. For example:
The district’s business office has been negatively impacted by frequent turnover within managerial positions. The lack of employee continuity has disrupted the internal control system in place. During our 32-month audit period, the School Business Administrator position was held by three different individuals. Also, the Assistant Business Administrator, Comptroller, Payables Manager, and Senior Payroll Manager positions have been abolished. Additionally, 23 upper-management employees separated from employment with the district. The average length of time these employees worked for the district was three years. This turnover has contributed to the erosion of internal controls.
Again: stuff like this was the whole reason Christie insisted the state had to take over CCPS. But then he appointed a wet-behind-the-ears superintendent who, it turns out, was clearly out of his depth. No surprise -- Christie did the same thing in Newark, and we all saw how that went...

I've said this repeatedly, so you'll pardon me if this is getting stale, but I'm going to give it yet another go in the hopes that maybe it starts to stick: 

White parents in the leafy suburbs would never, ever, put up with state control of their schools -- especially if that meant having to deal with a superintendent who had no experience running a school, let alone a district.

The idea that state control is the only solution for "failing" urban schools is built on a nasty bedrock of racism. But on top of that: State control of schools clearly doesn't work.

I know credulous reporters love to eat up pre-digested talking points about soaring graduation rates and skyrocketing test scores to justify these state interventions. But when you look at these metrics properly, it turns out the grad rates are simply part of overall trends (more here), and the small bumps in test scores are best understood as artifacts from changing the tests, not as real improvements in teaching and learning.

Camden deserves better. It needs experienced, competent leadership that can properly manage the district's finances. It needs adequate and equitable funding. It needs a system of school governance that allows all local stakeholders to have a say in how the system is operated -- just like almost every other district in the state.

State control has failed in Camden. It's time to admit it and move on to something better.

ADDING: I had complained in my last post that the media did not pick up on the Auditor's report on the Renaissance schools. But, to their credit, both NJ Spotlight and the Courier Post have since reported on the Auditor's findings.