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.


William Murdick said...

When I retired from college teaching in PA in 2000, the stadardized testing mania had recently started but was already in full bloom. It's sad that 18 years later it is still around, that state bureaucrats are so ineducable.

--Dr. William Murdick, Emeritus Professor of English

Unknown said...

Does the public/parents of any public school child/any taxpayer in the community...know that Pearson who produces the PARCC is a profitable beyond profitable company based in England? If you believe that Pearson researchers and test writers are the top, best, most knowledgeable corporate people to determine what your child knows or doesn't know to be a productive citizen...and graduate from high school in the USA... well, think again. This is about Pearson, a company, not USA Dept of Education researchers and specialists writing the 'exit' script. AND, PARCC is an online test...I have watched some children over their shoulder during testing, just not feel like scrolling back to specific sections to review/reread...they just weren't so online savvy or motivated when using the computer testing. Those students would have been better off with a hard copy/paper test. REALLY! But that is not offered to most students. I'm opposed to the Pearson PARCC testing. I'm a special education advocate. There ARE other measures to determine a child's worthiness to be considered a 'graduate'.