TRENTON, NJ - The New Jersey Commissioner of Education on Wednesday withdrew a controversial proposal to cut back on standardized tests in certain grades and subjects, just minutes before the State Board of Education members were set to vote on the plan.
The decision by Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet to pull the vote was a blow to Gov. Phil Murphy, who campaigned on eliminating the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessment on "day one" of his tenure.
The governor first announced the proposed elimination of 4 out of 6 high school math and English tests in July, and noted that commissioner and his staff at the state Department of Education staff toured 21 counties to listen to residents about the issue.
Yet the proposal was met with concern from the 13 State Board of Education members, who questioned the lack of research or data that underlay the move, as well as clear safety-net plans for struggling schools and students.
Underscoring the significance of the controversial effort, state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, made an unusual, public visit to the meeting to address board members and the commissioner.
Ruiz said she welcomed the commissioner’s decision to pause the plan to eliminate the tests, because “eliminating these assessments, absent a cohesive plan to replace them could have a negative and counterproductive impact on the quality of education.”
Ruiz called for a more collaborative process “based on the facts and data.”
“We now have a great opportunity to engage all of the stakeholders to work together in a deliberative manner and develop a thoughtful plan that delivers real and lasting solutions,” Ruiz said. “Any direction we take with education in New Jersey must be equitable, substantiated by facts and data, and must protect the most vulnerable.”
Other longtime education watchers agreed.
“Our education system must continue to innovate and that includes assessments,” said Patricia Morgan, executive director of JerseyCAN, a statewide education advocacy group. Morgan said she believed there was room for improvement, but echoed the need to ensure equity.
“The proposed changes went too far and would have reduced the collection of important data that is critical to improving student outcomes and preparing students for college and the workforce,” Morgan said.
Shelley Skinner, executive director of Better Education for Kids, also applauded the delay on the vote.
"We are pleased the board did not allow anecdotal evidence to be the basis of our state’s education policymaking, nor accept that it is too difficult to improve learning outcomes after eighth grade," Skinner said.
Ruiz’s decision to lean in on this issue follows strongly worded comments she and Senate President Steve Sweeney made last week when the Murphy administration unilaterally slashed the amount of weight standardized tests could have in teacher evaluations.
In addition to Ruiz and Sweeney, the Murphy administration’s move was also opposed by Assembly Education Chair Pamela Lampitt, who said that with the reduction “we lose the ability to set strong statewide evaluation standards for teachers.”
While the heads of the legislative education committees of both houses and the Senate president oppose Murphy’s recent education-related moves, the governor was applauded by the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the state’s teachers union, which endorsed the governor last year during the gubernatorial campaign.
NJEA President Marie Blistan testified Wednesday that PARCC has become a “massive intrusion on the school year, robbing students of valuable learning time and leaving teachers struggling to find time to do the real teaching they know their students need.”
“Due to the excessive hours of testing and the test preparation leading up to PARCC, teaching and learning has been greatly constrained,” Blistan said. “Statewide assessments should enrich curricula not burden students and teachers.”
While the vote on Wednesday would have only allowed the proposed changes to be published in the New Jersey Register and start the official public comment period, it would have allowed the DOE to issue revised guidance to high schools on high school graduation requirements.
"Governor Murphy believes that New Jersey's students and educators will benefit from transitioning away from high-stakes testing that values teaching to the test over comprehensive learning," said Deputy Press Secretary Alyana Alfaro in a statement. "...Governor Murphy hopes that the State School Board will carefully review the administration's recommendations and act to move New Jersey's schools forward."
Sweeney, who has a sour relationship with the NJEA, said in a joint statement issued last week with Ruiz that the Murphy administration is "walking away" from the students in the state with his recommendations to reduce the PARCC assessment to count for only five percent of a teacher’s evaluation.
“We know teacher quality is the most impactful in-school factor affecting student achievement. That is why we were clear when developing TEACHNJ and working with all education stakeholders that student growth would have a meaningful place within evaluations," the lawmakers said in the joint statement.
While discussion on the proposal will continue at the next State Board of Education Meeting in October, it is unclear whether the Board will vote to put the proposal out to public comment or merely further discuss the proposal.
The Senate Education Committee and the Assembly Education Committee have scheduled a joint meeting on Sept. 17 to hear from Education Commissioner Repollet on the PARCC assessments.