PARCC debate in Newark continues amid calls from Murphy for its dismantling

The debate over PARCC testing in Newark continues amid calls from recently-elected Gov. Phil Murphy to dismantle the test.

Newark, NJ--Ever since New Jersey began using the PARCC exam in the 2014-15 school year, the state teacher's union and other groups have criticized the standardized test and called for the state to stop using it to assess student performance.

During the campaign for governor last year, Phil Murphy, who was endorsed by the New Jersey Education Association, promised to ditch the test. Since becoming governor, Murphy has reiterated his support for doing away with Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career tests, though the exact timing remains unclear.

When Murphy announced Asbury Park Superintendent Lamont Repollet as Education Commissioner just a few days before his inauguration, he made his feelings about PARCC clear.

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“We are asking Dr. Repollet to end the failed experiment that has been PARCC testing and create new, more effective and less class time-intrusive means for measuring student assessment,” Murphy said.

The online test, administered in the spring for students in grades 3-11, is aligned to Common Core State Standards adopted by New Jersey in 2010 and features interactive questions to assess critical thinking skills.

In 2016, after Gov. Chris Christie declared that Common Core academic standards were "simply not working," the state Board of Education adopted new standards, though they were strikingly similar to the original standards.

While PARCC's days appear to be numbered in New Jersey, some educators say the test provides a valuable tool for measuring student progress.

Former state Deputy Education Commissioner Peter Shulman said the PARCC test has raised expectations and standards for both students and teachers.

Shulman—who served briefly as the interim superintendent of Newark Public Schools immediately after former NPS superintendent Cami Anderson and before former NPS superintendent Christopher Cerf stepped into the role in 2015—posits that dismantling PARCC would significantly impact an urban district like Newark.

“This would acutely impact our urban districts,” Shulman said. “Gov. Murphy said he’s going to scrap PARCC Day One. He’s been saying that for 16 months, but federal law requires that we give an assessment and PARCC has been distinguished as the best assessment that aligns with Common Core.”

Shulman also noted the possible loss of funding should PARCC be undone.

“We could lose hundreds of millions of dollars and it breaks federal law and is out of compliance with state regulations,” he said.

In Newark, some argue that PARCC data has played a crucial role in moving schools forward and has driven the return of local control.

Test results released by the district that show significant improvement in NPS proficiency rates over the last five years and Newark students outpacing similar districts have helped bolster this argument.

Recently-appointed Newark Public Schools Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory said PARCC is holding teachers to higher standards and equalizing the playing field for students.

“Everyone should want to know how a child is performing in accordance with the standards that are set,” Gregory said. “I’ve always been a fan of standardized tests because it’s the only way to know how a kid is doing by law. PARCC is very good—it’s presented in a practical way where you can actually improve your instruction. It’s beneficial for the teachers. It should drive what you’re doing in the classroom—that’s the meaning of standards, to increase rigor.”

According to NJDOE research studies, the implementation of PARCC has helped to eliminate the HSPA and NJASK tests, which were determined to be misaligned with college readiness and criticized for giving students a false sense of preparation for life beyond high school.

The report also credits the PARCC with implementing an improved educator evaluation system that is inclusive of student outcomes to better differentiate individual feedback and performance.

The report also found that a student graduation requirement based on PARCC is more commensurate with college readiness.

Statewide student improvement was evident between 2015 and 2017, according to the NJDOE report, with the number of students performing at or above grade level in ELA in grades 3-10 growing by more than seven percent, or more than 88,000 students.

Students partially meeting grade level expectations decreased by 4.4 percent, with more than 20,000 students approaching grade level expectations.

In math, students in grades 3-8 performing at or above grade level expectations grew by 4.9 percent, or more than 53,000 students, with the number of students only partially meeting grade-level expectations decreasing by 2.8 percent or more than 2,100 students, according to the report.

A cohort of more than 250,000 of the same New Jersey elementary students who took PARCC in 2015, 2016 and 2017 displayed some of the greatest gains, including a 10 percent point increase in ELA proficiency over that three-year span.

But detractors of PARCC have rallied against the test, calling it poorly-designed, confusing, diagnostically useless and even abusive.

“Taking and preparing for PARCC and other high-stakes standardized tests is replacing learning,” according to Save Our Schools NJ. “Administrators at many schools report that they spend as much as a third of the school year preparing students to take these tests. The tests drive how and what people teach, and they drive much of what is created by curriculum. PARCC and other high-stakes standardized tests undermine students' creativity and desire to learn.”

The group argues that the test does not improve educational outcomes, negatively impacts students’ long-term learning, motivation and stress levels, causes a loss of irreplaceable instructional time and encourages widespread cheating and corruption in test administration.

Newark Charter School Fund Executive Director Michele Mason said PARCC testing has offered a more advanced and accurate assessment and has shifted instructional focus from memorization to rigorous comprehension and critical thinking. 

“If New Jersey moves in a new direction, we want to make sure the test is reliable, measures high-level thinking skills and continues to enable us to benefit from meaningful data on what students are learning and where they might need help,” Mason said.

“It is also important to  continue to get data on how student subgroups such as English language learners and low-income students are performing compared to other students so we can be sure every child gets the support he or she needs," Mason said. "We are concerned that eliminating PARCC would complicate measurement and evaluation of student progress over time. The ensuing transition period would divert schools’ and teachers’ attention towards adjusting to new test protocols, at the expense of having a laser focus on instruction.”

Mason expressed concern that eliminating PARCC would cause a disruption for teachers, students and families.

“Confusion would reign on what assessment students and schools should really focus on, and there would be gaps in measuring student progress that would make it more difficult for teachers to personalize instruction and maximize achievement,” she said. "Though the state assessment is not the only way to measure students' progress, it is one extremely important piece to help us get the full picture and compare data across districts, schools, and student subgroups."

Newark school board member Reginald Bledsoe believes the tests are not beneficial to the district.

“I support Gov. Murphy, who doesn’t believe in teaching to the test,” Bledsoe said. “I believe in assessment but I don’t think we get all that from a computerized test. With PARCC, you’re solely teaching to the test and that’s not necessarily good in the 21st century. I’ve always believed in allowing school districts to come up with their own testing. It shouldn’t come from DC. I think there are different routes for college and career readiness. We lose a lot of these kids because of these exams.”

Parent advocate Tafshier Cosby-Thomas said PARCC provides parents with more comprehensive feedback on a student's academic progress than previous statewide tests.

“Schools in the Newark district have the tools to be able to measure our children's progress within the city,” Cosby-Thomas said. “What will be affected is there will be no tool to measure our children's progress in parallel with all the other children in New Jersey. Requiring student assessments ensures that we can hold schools and local government accountable for student performance and the district can gauge student’s success by moving beyond memorization, emphasizing critical thinking, problem-solving and writing.”

Cosby-Thomas noted that dismantling PARCC could result in students graduating from high school but unprepared for college-level work and beyond.

“Unlike past assessment exams that focused on multiple choice and true-false questions, PARCC was created to focus on age-appropriate problem-solving, critical evaluations and higher-level thinking skills," she said. "These are the kinds of skills students need to succeed in the real world.”

But parent advocate and school board candidate Yolanda Johnson disagrees.

“I am totally against PARCC and against teaching to the test,” Johnson said. “It’s discriminatory.”

Johnson said the test poses physical challenges for special-needs students, among others.

“PARCC doesn’t demonstrate academic assessment and the data doesn’t align,” she said, noting that teachers need to return to administering classroom tests and quizzes at regular intervals.

Although New Jersey students have a 90 percent graduation rate, Shulman said that many students are not actually prepared for college.

“The test fills the honesty gap,” Shulman said. “In cities like Newark, Camden and Asbury Park, PARCC has removed the bigotry of soft expectations for minority kids. We need to be honest and not lower expectations. We need to help them get over the bar.”

Shulman said PARCC tests provide the stability and continuity that school districts need.

“The confluence of our policies are working toward creating an aligning direction that parents and students are looking for,” Shulman said. “They want continuity, they don’t want a new governor to come in and create a revolving door. When Murphy says this, it is very concerning for me, specifically when it comes to students. We know that students and educators can rise to the occasion. The data is showing that our compass is heading in the right direction.”

But ending PARCC will not mean ending state assessments.

“Federal education law still requires states to test at least 95 percent of their students every year from grades 3-8, and at least once in high school in math and reading,” Mason said. “State leaders, local educators, and postsecondary faculty from 22 states worked together for several years to develop PARCC as a high-quality assessment of more rigorous, college- and career-ready standards. Studies show it is among the best assessments of our more rigorous standards. It is unlikely another assessment would improve on this process and its results on short notice.”

Gregory offered a reminder as to how PARCC tests came about in the first place.

“We are falling behind other free-market nations—that’s what drove the tests, that’s why they were created,” Gregory said. “I’m hoping there would be a substitute assessment if Gov. Murphy gets rid of PARCC. Without the tests it’s hard to know what that diploma really means.”

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