EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - Todd Simmens, current and past president of the East Brunswick Board of Education, has served the township during a period of tremendous change in education locally and nationally. When he started in 2007 as a BOE member, he watched the district manage and succeed on the NJASK and HSPA standardized testing programs. That was tough enough, but the walking in the PARCC has been much harder.
Simmens recognizes that standardized testing for established benchmarks as indicative years throughout a students education (eg. testing at grades 4, 8, and 11) has been around for decades and the information was valuable in updating curriculum and monitoring students' progress. However, Simmens says, "There never seemed to be such a disruption in the past. The tests captured the information that the schools needed."
"Today, " he continued, "There is far more pressure on staff, schools, and administrators to 'produce' plus there's the implementation of technology....We need to understand what we really want out of testing." Simmens noted that the testing has been used for student placement; evaluation of individual schools and the school system itself; teacher evaluation; the high points and low points of what a district is doing; and, in some sense, it is "a measure of the entire community."
"Policy-makers in New Jersey are still not sure what data they want from the test. Testing every year is too much, " said Simmens, while admitting, "I totally get that a technology-based test is what is needed now and in the future."
"In East Brunswick, we are getting better at the local piece; every year it has gotten a bit better. Then the state sends a sterile, computer-generated report to the parents," said Simmens. "Parents are right to ask 'What does that tell me about my kid?' Teachers report on students 8 times a year, sometimes more. Surely that is solid, understandable information."
Referring to the upcoming state gubernatorial elections, Simmens said, "I am hopeful that he way we test and the idea of testing every year could be revised." He suggested that the new administration could "Bring all the right stakeholders into the room to discuss the testing in all districts A-J and walk through what the right way to do this is. (Schools in New Jersey were formerly evaluated according to a matrix based mostly on the economic level of the community. The designation A represented the lowest income districts. East Brunswick was an I district. Schools are now evaluated to a more complex "apples to apples" format that compares schools with similar variables.)
When asked about the students who "opted-out" of the PARCC tests and the parents who allowed them to do so, Simmens said, "As I parent, I feel that parents should be parents first. You know them better than anybody else. Do what's best for your child."
"As a member of the Board of Education, I feel that this testing is put in the laps of every district in the state of New Jersey. Yes, there are consequences for the district and to individual students. I am hopeful that the new administration will take a fresh look."
With regard to bullying and climate concerns in the district, Simmens was hopeful and supportive of the special programs, workshops, training, and general awareness and cultural sensitivity expressed by the staff. "I think that principals can select the programming that works best for their schools. What is effective in high school is not necessarily the best thing for an elementary school. Principals, counselors, teachers, and Special Education staff know the students best."
He also noted that the security program has its role in creating and maintaining a safe environment. In the upper grades, Simmens says he is pleased to see guards building rapport with the students. "There needs to be a balance between security and caring."
"However, " stressed Simmens, "The best thing to do is to keep students engaged with school and school activities. How do we reach the student who will be interested and looking forward to the next day of school? Connected students are less like to be bullies or bullied."