Opinion

Waters: New Jersey’s New Governor Says He Wants to Scrap PARCC Tests but Doesn’t Know How. Here’s What It Would Take — and It’s Not Easy

By Laura Waters | March 18, 2018

Democratic candidate Phil Murphy speaks at a rally on Oct. 19, 2017, in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo credit: Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Eighteen months ago, Governor-to-be Phil Murphy vowed during his keynote address at the 2016 New Jersey Education Association convention to “scrap PARCC Day One.” Two and a half months later, his new education commissioner, Lamont Repollet, announced the beginning of the process to fulfill that vow, in a method he recently described as “thoughtful,” “deliberative,” and designed to “ensure compliance with state and federal law” and be implemented “in a manner that is most beneficial and least disruptive to the students whom we serve.”

How they would accomplish this goal seems problematic, as just two months ago, when asked by a reporter about the process of eliminating PARCC exams, Murphy said that “the answer to the logistics of how it’s done, honestly, I don’t know.”

Happy to help, Governor.

I don’t mean to be flippant. The problem for Repollet is that replacing the data on student growth that PARCC provides with — well, something else — is complex, expensive, and inevitably disruptive, and it serves no academic purpose beyond pandering to union leaders and allied lobbying groups. So let’s unpack the process. What would it take to eliminate PARCC as New Jersey’s statewide assessments, which, under federal law, must be administered annually to third- through eighth-graders and once to high schoolers?

First, Repollet appropriately plans to convene an advisory committee composed of “diverse educational perspectives and strong technical knowledge of the realities of test administration.” Members will no doubt include leaders of the union, which invested millions of dollars prodding parents to boycott PARCC tests. Most likely the committee also will include a member of the State Board of Education (President Arcelio Aponte recently noted that PARCC is superior to earlier tests and that “there is a lot to acknowledge in terms of gains that we can’t simply dismiss”) as well as a representative from a pro-accountability group like JerseyCAN, which applauds PARCC’s compilation of “accurate data from a statewide perspective.”

Trust me: This will not be a short-term gig.

After the committee reaches consensus, the state must develop a Request for Proposals, a tightly regulated process for soliciting bids from new vendors governed by New Jersey’s procurement laws. (Even if the state wanted to create its own test, due diligence would still require an RFP.) For RFPs with this sort of technical complexity, the timeline is 18 to 36 months to identify the best vendor.

The next hurdle is that PARCC is embedded in New Jersey’s federal, state, and local accountability tools. For example, the state’s plan for complying with the new Every Student Succeeds Act has 54 references to PARCC. Bellwether describes the plan as a “thoughtful … statistically sophisticated accountability system built on rigorous college and career-ready standards” that attempts to “ensure that schools prioritize the needs of all students” and builds “a multitiered system of supports to assist identified schools and districts.”

If we change assessments, we have to resubmit our ESSA plan to the U.S. Education Department and undergo another 120-day peer review process. Similarly, we have to change our state regulations, our district accountability rubric, and our teacher evaluation system, which all reference PARCC. (If we don’t comply with ESSA, we’ll lose $900 million annually in federal grants, which will primarily hurt low-income students.)

After all that, the state will have to pilot the new set of assessments, which takes a full year — meaning the new test can be administered statewide as Murphy is completing his first term in office.

Given all that, why would New Jersey eliminate a highly regarded test aligned with state standards and lauded by local education leaders? The easy answer — that during the campaign, Murphy promised union leaders he’d eliminate PARCC — seems feeble at best; we’re not counting votes, we’re counting efforts to achieve honest assessments of school quality and student learning. Yes, the transition to PARCC was messy because change is hard, districts had to augment bandwidth, and the union had a temper tantrum because our teacher evaluation law ties teacher quality to student outcomes. (That’s just a pretense now: Last year, 98.2 percent of New Jersey teachers were rated “effective” or “highly effective.”) But there’s no escaping the fact that PARCC is the best test for measuring student growth. (See Education First, Human Resources Research Organization, Fordham Institute, American Institutes for Research, National Network of State Teachers of the Year.)

Or, as West Essex Regional School District Director Ryan Gupta said, “PARCC is great because it breaks down every question and gives us data to look at. … We can look at that data and see what everyone understood well, and we can see where students struggle, then use that data to make adjustments.”

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And, really, our kids and parents are fine. Every year, opt-outs diminish: In 2017, nearly 75,000 more tests were completed in reading and 87,000 more were completed in math. Our kids and educators are rising to the challenge: From year 1 to year 3, over 88,000 more students in reading and over 70,000 more in math met or exceeded expectations. Yes, it’s hard to glom on to the fact that half our students aren’t at grade level. But the whole point is to be honest, isn’t it? There’s a reason so many New Jersey high school graduates have to take remedial courses in college.

And, not that it’s about money, but moving to a different test will cost, well, more money. Currently, the state spends about $26 per student on PARCC, less than we spent on our old ASK and HSPA tests. And states that have decided to go it alone have found themselves sunk in fiscal, operational, and opportunity costs.

There’s got to be a better way than trashing years of comparable data, millions of hours educators spent aligning pedagogical strategies, and better access for students with disabilities and English learners. We all want to help our schools, particularly struggling ones, up their instructional mettle, right? What if, instead of politicizing school quality, we put children first? Can we shorten the tests? Empower teachers to tweak questions so we measure school quality and student growth in a way that is transparent to families? Rename our annual assessments so they feel less foreign? Eliminate high school assessments not tied to student graduation requirements?

This exercise shouldn’t be about campaign promises. It should be about what’s best for kids. And that means retaining PARCC.

Laura Waters writes about education policy and politics at NJ Left Behind, New York School Talk, Education Post, and other publications. She just finished serving 12 years on her local school board in Lawrence, New Jersey, and was president for nine of those years.

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