Administrative Law 101: Administrators Must Implement the Law as Written

The New Jersey State Board of Education is currently considering regulations that would make passing PARCC ELA 10 and PARCC Algebra I high school graduation requirements for all New Jersey public school students starting with the Class of 2021. A portfolio option under supervision of the Commissioner of Education would only be available after students attempted and failed PARCC.  Below is my planned May 4, 2016 testimony to the State Board of Education on the proposed regulations, explaining why, in my opinion, the regulations promulgated by the New Jersey Department of Education for approval by the State Board of Education exceed the State Board’s authority. Although my analysis is technical, I tried to write it so that it would be accessible to the general public.  For your convenience, the text of the proposals and the relevant statutes are linked in the text so that you can follow the analysis yourself.  


I am here today as a parent of two current New Jersey public school students – one in the class of 2023 and the other in the class of 2027, both of whom will be directly affected if you adopt the PARCC graduation regulations proposed by the Department of Education.  Careerwise, I am a former teacher turned attorney.  My professional life as an attorney in private practice includes ten years litigating commercial issues, including significant experience in Securities Fraud and Securities & Exchange Act Section 16(b) litigation, along with insurance coverage litigation, and litigation of breach of contract and other commercial disputes.  In that capacity, I have spent a great deal of time over the past decade parsing statutes and regulations.

After carefully reviewing the proposed regulations (see p. 42 of the PDF), the statutes those regulations purport to implement (linked below), the enabling statute setting forth the New Jersey State Board of Education’s powers, and the PARCC website, it is my opinion that the proposed regulations conflict with the statutes they purport to enable, and that there is reasonable doubt as to whether the power to implement these regulations resides in the State Board of Education.  

Given this conclusion, as a taxpayer, a parent, and an attorney, I implore you to vote against the proposed PARCC graduation requirement regulations.  I do not want to see our state wasting taxpayer dollars in yet another lawsuit challenging the legality of the proposed regulations.  For the sake of brevity, I have limited my analysis to the proposal for the Class of 2021 forward, as those are the new permanent regulations that would affect both of my children.

I reviewed New Jersey Statutes Annotated 18A:7C-1 through 7C-6.1, which set out the State’s involvement in developing and approving the Statewide assessment test; specify to whom that test must be administered; set out the conditions under which a comprehensive alternative assessment program, such as portfolio reviews, may be used to meet the testing graduation requirement; and most critically set out the Statewide levels of proficiency required as minimum standards to earn a high school diploma.  Copies of the relevant statutes are attached to your copies of my remarks.  

Any regulations enacted by this Board setting out the details of the proficiency tests must not, of course, conflict with any of the statutes noted above.  

So what do the statutes the Board’s regulations seek to implement require?  N.J.S.A. 18A:7C-1 et seq. require that the Commissioner develop a graduation exit test to be approved by this Board in order to obtain a State-endorsed high school diploma. Id. at 7C-1, 7C-2, 7C-4. The Statewide assessment test must be administered to all 11th grade students. Id. at 7C-6 and 7C-6.1.  It must measure those minimum basic skills all students must possess to function politically, economically and socially in a democratic society: specifically, the test must measure the reading, writing, and computational skills students must demonstrate as minimum requirements for high school graduation.  Id. at 7C-1, 7C-6.1.  Further, if a student uses a comprehensive assessment option instead – i.e., the portfolio option – the student’s use of the portfolio option must be approved by the Commissioner of Education.  Id. at 7C-4.

The problem is that the graduation requirements enshrined in the proposal for the Class of 2021 forward do not meet the requirements set forth in the statute.

First, the Statewide assessment test must be administered to all 11th graders.  See N.J.S.A. 18A:7C-6; 7C-6.1.  Under the Class of 2021 forward regulations, however, the tests that students will be required to obtain passing scores on to earn their high school diplomas, however, are the 10th grade ELA test and the Algebra I test.  By definition, the 10th grade ELA test will not be administered to all 11th graders statewide.  

The Algebra I test is even more problematic, as many students across the state take Algebra I (and therefore the Algebra I PARCC End-of-Course test) as early as 7th or 8th grade.  It also, of course, makes no sense to tell children as young as 12 that their high school graduation depends on their performance on a test they’re taking now.  Further, making obtaining a Proficient score on the End-Of-Course test for a course often taught in 7th or 8th grade a high school graduation requirement might well have the unintended consequence of discouraging districts from offering accelerated math programs to qualified students.  

Second, I’ve scoured the PARCC consortium website in detail, and nowhere does it say that the PARCC ELA 10 and PARCC Algebra I tests were designed to measure whether students have achieved those minimum basic skills all students must possess to function politically, economically, and socially in a democratic society.  Instead, PARCC is focused on assessing college and career readiness – a laudable goal, but a much higher standard than the minimal basic skills standard the Board is authorized to employ in approving a test to determine which public school students in the state will be denied high school diplomas.  Specifically, PARCC explains on its page regarding test design that:

Key milestones included developing college-and career-ready determination policies and performance-level descriptors in ELA/literacy and math to describe: 1. What it takes for students to succeed in entry-level, college courses and relevant technical courses, and 2. The knowledge, skills, and practices students performing at a given level are able to demonstrate at any grade.

While I would tend to agree that if – and that’s a big if – PARCC really can measure a student’s college and career readiness, and that if proficient – i.e., Level 4 score — on the PARCC test actually reflects whether a student is college and career ready, achieving a “4” on high school level PARCC tests would necessarily imply that a student also has the minimum basic skills in reading, writing, and computational skills necessary to function politically, economically, and socially in a democratic society. I do not, however, agree that the converse is true.  That is, one could have the minimum basic skills in reading, writing, and computational skills necessary to function in a democratic society without also being ready to succeed in entry-level, college and technical courses:  

College and Career Ready vs Basic Skills

However, the school laws you’re tasked with enacting and enabling only allow you to deny high school diplomas to students who don’t demonstrate the minimum basic skills in reading, writing, and computational skills necessary to function politically, socially, and economically in a democratic society.  What the statutes expressly do not allow you to do is to unilaterally raise that minimum and instead require students to meet a much higher threshold – college and career readiness – in order to obtain a high school diploma.  

Further, the statute is clear: as far as math goes, you are tasked with only one thing: to measure computational basic skills – i.e., students’ ability to do arithmetic. See N.J.S.A. 18A:7C-1(a).  The Performance Level Descriptors for Level 4 performance on the PARCC Algebra I End-of-Year test, however, require students achieving Level 4 to, for example: 

  • Determine equivalent forms of quadratic expressions and functions; 
  • Graph linear, quadratic and cubic (in which linear and quadratic factors are available) functions, showing key features; and 
  • Graph the solution sets of equations, linear inequalities and systems of linear equations and linear equalities.”  

While those may well be appropriate expectations for an Algebra I End-of-Year course assessment, it strains credulity to state that a student who meets these requirements has done nothing more than demonstrate the basic computational skills necessary to function in a democratic society.  I can tell you that in my 10 years practicing law, while I’ve used my basic computational skills many times to do preliminary damages calculations, determine amounts of prejudgment and post judgment interest, and heck, even track whether my billable hours were on target to meet my firm’s expectations, I have never – not once – needed to apply my high school algebra quadratic function graphing skills to function – pun not intended – socially, politically, or economically in our democratic society.  

Finally, there is nothing in the statutes that unilaterally authorizes the Board to demand that high school students take not one, but up to 6 tests as a condition of graduation.  Yet, the Class of 2021 proposal, while only requiring students to pass ELA 10 and Algebra 1, also requires students to take ELA 9, ELA 10, ELA 11, and any appropriate math PARCC tests, which could include Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II, before he or she may demonstrate competency via portfolio.  

Given the serious conflicts between the school statutes pertaining to graduation enacted by our legislature and the proposed regulations promulgated by the Department, I think it is clear that your duty requires you to vote against enacting the proposed graduation requirement regulations.  As a taxpayer, public school parent, and attorney, I urge you to do so, and to instead direct the Department to develop standards that harmonize with the statutes you are tasked with enforcing.  If you and/or the Department think that the standard for obtaining a State-endorsed high school diploma should be raised to be a college and career readiness standard, then it is up to you and the Department to lobby our legislature to make that change.  

Thank you.

A Mother’s Dream

A Mother’s Dream

As parents, we have dreams for our children’s futures.  We dream that they will be extraordinary — that they will write novels, become virtuosos, or gain the civic and political knowledge necessary to change the world.  Every child should dream of being president, or a movie star, or a world-class athlete, or a famous novelist or composer, or a wildly successful entrepreneur.  Every child should not just dream of the presidency or the Super Bowl or of being the next Lin-Manuel Miranda or Steve Jobs: every child should have access to an education that supports rather than hinders his or her quest to become the best version of the person she or he has the capacity to be. 

But standardized public education has little hope of nurturing passions or encouraging dreams.  Standardized education limits possibilities, and narrows curiosity.  Children who spend all of their times trying to find the right answers to other people’s questions learn to stop asking their own questions — and without questions, curiosity withers and dies.  I read so much about the goal of education being to prepare my child for college or career: but what those articles never drill down on is, “What career?”  Reading between the lines, however, the college or career preparation today’s education reformers imagine is limited in scope: our kids should be, they say, marching in lockstep toward the STEM careers of tomorrow.  

My kid doesn’t dream of a STEM career programming computers in a dusty cubicle.  Is that really the extent of what my child’s aspirations should be?  My child dreams of being the next Lin-Manuel Miranda.  My child dreams of curing cancer.  My child dreams of opening her own interior design firm.  My child dreams of being a prize-winning journalist, exposing corruption and explaining policy issues to the voters whose ballots can influence our futures (or at least of being the next Valerie Strauss).

Providing our children — ALL of our children — with educations that do not standardize them, that do not shut down those dreams before they begin — that is a noble purpose of public education.  Providing our children with the tools necessary to be informed and conscientious citizens — that is a noble purpose of public education.  I dream of public education for children — for ALL children — that equips them with the tools to be thoughtful citizens, and with the encouragement to follow their hopes into the future.  I dream of a public education that imbues children — ALL children — with the tools they need to make a meaningful impact, hopefully for the better, on the world.  

I dream of a world in which public education opens endless possibilities, not of a world in which creativity and passion are sacrificed to the false gods of standardization and faux-rigor.  This weekend is the Network for Public Education’s 3rd Annual Conference.  I arrived in Raleigh, North Carolina a little while ago.  This weekend, what I look forward to is spending time with hundreds of adults from across the country, all of whom share big dreams for our children, our future, and for the possibilities of what public education can and should be.  This weekend, I won’t be dreaming alone.

Those Terrifying Teachers

  1. Those who control education policy in this country these days are obsessed with getting our kids college and career ready. They want our kids to succeed. But their narrow definition of success is bankrupt of humanity. The implicit assumption in a goal of “college and career readiness” is that it is the job of schools to prepare our kids for getting into the most highly-selective colleges so that they can go on to have the most financially lucrative white-collar careers. The college and career readiness mantra leaves no room for the satisfaction of a master craftsman, a choice to pursue service over money, or even the stereotype of the starving artist. The college and career readiness trope is about measuring success by measuring bank accounts.

As a child, I grew up in a wealthy community in which the overwhelming value transmitted to children by that community was that success meant the acquisition of material wealth. In particular, the message that was drilled into me, over and over again, was that success meant achieving top grades and participating in activities that would make me attractive to highly-competitive colleges and universities. Attend one of those highly selective colleges or universities, the message went, and I would never have to worry about material wealth, or achieving success as my community defined it.

I always had a hard time explicitly swallowing this message, but I nevertheless internalized it. I attended a highly-selective college, although I had to fight with my parents about my choice, because attending one of the small, liberal arts colleges that comprise “The Little Three” wasn’t as instantly impressive to strangers as it would have been if I’d attended a name recognition giant like Harvard or even Cornell. My small-scale rebellion was to choose to apply Early Decision to the small liberal arts college I thought would be the best fit for me instead of waiting to hear from the better known colleges my parents would have preferred.

My micro-rebellions continued, even as the internalized values of my childhood predominated. For instance, I felt drawn to the kibbutz movement, although once I spent a few months volunteering on a kibbutz after college, I quickly realized that theory was swell, but practically speaking, the kibbutz movement — and commune life more generally — was not all it was cracked up to be.

After college and my return from a post-college year of volunteering in Israel, I took some time to get my bearings waiting tables before I ended up at a master of arts in teaching program and eventually in a rural Maine classroom. As I’ve written before, I was young and naive and I’m sure I was not nearly the teacher then that I think I could be now. But I contributed something positive to the world, and overall I think that my classroom time in Maine was a net-positive for my students and their community before I returned to New Jersey to be closer to my mother, who was, by then, six years into a cancer diagnosis. Some day, I’d like to return back to a high school classroom.

Back in New Jersey, I applied to law school. And again, I got sucked into the definition of success that had been drilled into me as a child, as this definition was once again reinforced in law school. The message about success in law school was that success was about achieving the highest grades and getting job offers from the most prestigious law firms. Again, I sort of bucked the system, but not really: I went to a large New Jersey law firm with high salaries and a good reputation, but because I was married and gave birth to my first child before I graduated from law school, I turned down offers from more prestigious New York law firms. I knew that I couldn’t be the kind of parent — and daughter to my still cancer-fighting mother — that I wanted to be if I needed to bill large law firm hours and manage a Manhattan commute.

I spent seven years at that large New Jersey law firm, although the last year or two were spent in a crisis of conscience as I tried, among other things, to square my internalized notions of success with the idea that I didn’t want to — and wasn’t — doing what it would have taken to try to “succeed” there: i.e., make partner. And to be honest, I can’t even begin to imagine how miserable I’d be now if I had done those things. As it is, I regret that I spent much less time with my mother than I wish I had during the last year of her life, because I was so worried about making a good impression during my first year at that law firm.

If I had overcome my conscience and values enough to stay, I would have grown more and more miserable as my kids advanced through our good but far from perfect local public school system, which has been rocked by education reformers’ attempts to make it an exemplar district for suburban education reform. That law firm was a home base for so-called education reformers: many of its clients were hedge funds and private equity funds, and so we were subjected to propaganda from the high-performing charter schools, and indeed, Democrats for Education Reformer’s new president, Shavar Jeffries, became a partner there shortly after I left. I would have not just worn golden handcuffs; I would have been wearing a golden gag.

So for the past three years I’ve been on a new path, a path in which the partners at the small, woman-owned law firm where I work now know, because I’ve told them directly, that I have no interest in killing myself to convince them that they should make me a partner. Rather, I cut my hours back to three-quarters time so that I have more time for my family, friends, and the causes I care about.

I am fortunate indeed to be able to work only three-quarters time without great financial stress. While I appreciate that I am privileged to live a comfortable life, I’ve stopped coveting the multi-million dollar mansions up on the hill. Let the Stephen Colberts and the CEOs and the private equity fund managers live in those: frankly, I’m much happier in my house on a lot measured in square feet rather than acres. Here I have the good fortune of living on a close-knit street with neighbors who have become dear friends. Our children develop independence by running in a pack from noon to nightfall, a rare phenomenon these days.

For me, success is realizing that I have enough, and that time is a far more precious commodity than money. I’m successful because while my time still seems limited, I know that I’m able to be a better mother to my children because work doesn’t keep me family dinner and reading to my children. I’m successful because I’m able to cultivate friendships, and be flexible, and take my kids for a five day camping trip on an island in the middle of a lake. I’m successful because I have a spouse who supports me in these things, and doesn’t insist that I continue working at a job that was killing me, just so that we acquire more stuff.

I don’t live in one of our town’s fancy mansions. My furniture has been torn to pieces by our cats and kids. I can’t justify joining the country club at the end of my block, with its lovely pool and golf-course that my husband would enjoy. I don’t get to donate thousands of dollars at charity galas, or jet set off to Europe or a tropical island any time I’d like. My wardrobe is a far cry from being fashion forward.

But I look at my life, and I’m pretty content.

I have time for some activism in the education world.

I have some time to write this blog.

I have a husband, family, and children who mean the world to me.

I have the opportunity to offer my cousin a place to live while she attends a local college that would otherwise be out of reach for her.

I have the best neighbors I could possibly imagine, and I know the close-knit community of our street is only possible because our properties are small enough that there’s the density needed to ensure that our kids have a pack of built-in friends.

I have strong friendships, many of which have lasted for twenty or thirty years or more, and I have time to nurture those friendships through phone calls, email, and yes, even Facebook, as well as in-person visits.

I have a best friend whose joy in his daughter brings me delight every time I see them together.

I have the satisfaction of knowing that I’m able to make a small but nevertheless meaningful contribution toward moving the education conversation in this country in the direction in which I think it should go.

I have the opportunity to send my children to good schools, with diverse peers who will teach them more about the world than I could ever hope to do on my own.

I’d call each of those things a hallmark of success.

Given all of that, what do I teach my children about success in this dog-eat-dog world?  It would be easy to fall back on what I was taught as a child: that success is attending the highest ranked school and then getting the job or starting the career that will earn the most money. But I don’t believe that anymore. These days, I believe that success is not so easily measured. Success is not the biggest bank account or the most prestigious job. Success is building a life filled with meaningful relationships, opportunities for service, outlets for creativity, and the self-awareness to find contentment in enough.

The college and career readiness trope lacks humanity. It misses the point that many of us don’t want our children’s schools to set our kids on a path toward internalizing the idea that success is defined as having the most stuff.

So these days, I try to teach my kids a broader definition of success than the one I internalized as a child. I try to teach my kids that success is living a life that values kindness, service to others, and creativity. Don’t get me wrong: I have talented children, and I want them to have the opportunity to attend amazing colleges, and to pursue rewarding careers. But I also don’t want them to sacrifice their happiness and satisfaction in the pursuit of material gain. What frustrates me as a parent is that current education policy forces our schools to shove the narrow definition of success that characterized my childhood down my children’s throats.

And do you know what? I don’t think the best teachers want our children to give up kindness, service to others, compassion, or creativity either. I don’t think the best teachers define success as narrowly as education policy says they should.

These days, we live in a world in which the ultra-wealthy — through their minions — set education policy despite having little or no experience in public school classrooms.  The ultra-wealthy toil away in their Greenwich, CT hedge funds or Manhattan equity funds or Silicon Valley venture funds or their hugely-endowed philanthropic trusts, and try to bring some meaning into their lives by devoting some free time and excess cash to tinkering with our education system. But their measures of success are barren: they inundate the policy environment with claims that college and career readiness can be measured through test scores, but I notice that they don’t even attempt to measure what it means to provide an education that identifies and nurtures each child’s unique gifts and talents.

Career teachers scare the crap out of the ultra-wealthy. Career teachers scare the crap out of them because comparing the life of a career teacher to the life of an ultra-wealthy hedge fund manager demonstrates how empty a life spent in pursuit of money and power truly is. Career teachers scare the crap out of the wealthy tinkerers, because career teachers are adults who have eschewed the temptation of the private sector in exchange for the opportunity to be of service.

The ultra-wealthy attack teachers because a choice to teach is a choice to say that there are things more important than money and material success.

The ultra-wealthy are terrified by those who make the choice to teach, because a choice to teach is a choice to value service over greed. Career teachers, merely by their existence, are living critiques of the lives the ultra-wealthy have built.

The ultra-wealthy try to motivate teachers with merit pay and career ladders. But career teachers ignore the lame financial incentives and bogus career ladders, because career teachers are about measuring success by the humanity they’re able to infuse into their classrooms, not by the size of their paychecks.

So the ultra-wealthy respond by attempting to de-professionalize teaching.

The ultra-wealthy try to strip away teachers’ benefits.  The ultra-wealthy try to transform teaching into a glorified temp job by devaluing teacher training and teacher experience. But the career teachers aren’t going to stop doing what’s best for children without a fight, because the career teachers are there to serve children and communities.

The ultra-wealthy — and their minions — attack those who choose teaching as a career. They do it because teachers are the people who have implicitly voted with their feet against living lives devoted to the unregulated pursuit of greed, money, and power. And somewhere, deep down, the ultra-wealthy know that the career teachers are right to reject these things. You know those teachers: they’re terrifying indeed.

Chris Christie Has A Bridge To Sell Us

As you may have heard (my phone’s notifications certainly blew up yesterday when this announcement came out), Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, in a bid to rescue his floudering-before-it-begins presidential run, announced that after five years of shoving the Common Core State Standards down our throats, he is joining the bandwagon of parents across the country, and now proudly shouting:”No More Common Core!” See, e.g., ABC’s coverage of his announcement.

It is a heck of a sound bite, and will bring him some momentum in the 24-hour news cycle.  However, it is a sham.  His announcement changes nothing. Because along with his announcement, as we here in New Jersey have come to expect, he included some fine print:

Meanwhile, Christie said that the state will continue using a new standardized test [i.e., the Partnership for Assessment of   Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) test] that was developed to measure how students were doing with the Common Core.

So Christie is “rejecting” Common Core but still requiring kids to take PARCC, a test developed to measure their achievement of the Common Core. Additionally, teacher and school evaluations throughout the state will still be based (10% this year, and as of now, 20% next year, and 30% in years to follow) on kids’ scores on those Common Core-aligned tests. Placement decisions for children will still be predicated on their “achievement” of the Common Core standards, evaluations for teachers will still be predicated on their students’ “achievement” of the Common Core standards, and schools will still be labeled as “failing” based on their students’ alleged “failure” to achieve those Common Core standards — all as measured by PARCC.

Christie’s announcement changes nothing, and shame on the media for lapping it up so naively. Christie’s so-called rejection of Common Core is simply a sound bite for him to take on the road to Iowa and New Hampshire while our NJ public school kids continue to deal with a language arts curriculum that doesn’t teach them to consider texts and ideas within their broader historical context.  

The irony is that Christie’s faux-announcement proves what so many of us have been saying all along: curriculum and education these days aren’t standards-driven, they’re test driven. The one thing this announcement does provide is a lesson in the convoluted logic of politics. So in that sad, cynical sense, at least Christie is providing our kids with a lesson in practical civics, which many of their schools no longer teach.

However, as long as the Common Core-aligned PARCC test continues to be the barometer to allegedly measure our schools, teachers, and children’s efficacy, Christie’s announcement is worth even less than the paper his speech was written on. If you believe otherwise, then man, I’ve got a bridge to sell you…

It’s a Matter of Trust – My Testimony to the Governor’s PARCC Study Commission

Today, I joined a group of about 40 amazing parents, teachers, school board members (although all of them gave the caveat that they were testifying in their personal capacities) and even an amazing Superintendent to testify publicly before Governor Christie’s PARCC and Assessment Task Force. Every single person who testified did a terrific job, and I’ll note that at this public hearing, not a single member of the public spoke in favor of the PARCC test. I’ll see if I can do a better write up later about the meeting. But in the meantime, here’s a link to a video of me testifying.

And here is the text of what I said (I’m starting to feel like something of a broken record):

My name is Sarah Blaine. I’m an attorney and the mother of two daughters, ages 6 and 10, both of whom attend public schools in Montclair. I’ve been practicing law for almost a decade now, but before I went to law school, I earned a master of arts in teaching degree and taught high school English for a couple of years in rural Maine. Over the past year, as I saw the changes in my older daughter’s curriculum, I began looking into the Common Core State Standards, and the effects they were having on our kids’ schools. As part of that inquiry, I also began looking at the new tests to measure our kids’ achievement, the PARCC tests created by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career. The more I learned, the more concerned I grew. I began writing about my concerns on a personal blog,, and quite a few of my pieces – including one this morning – have been picked up by The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog.

I stand here today to tell you that the PARCC tests are not going to improve education or help our students.

It’s all really a matter of trust. That’s what a lot of our debate about PARCC and Common Core boils down to: trust – and, where opinions and plans for public education diverge, who we, as parents, can trust to have our kids’ best interests at heart. Do we trust our children’s teachers and principals: the people we can hold accountable on a personal level – by looking them in the eyes and raising our concerns – and on a policy level, by publicly bringing any concerns we may have to a democratically constituted school boards who are elected solely to deal with education issues? Or do we trust state and federal bureaucrats and elected officials who are accountable to a broad swath of voters for far more than just education policy, and therefore, as a practical matter, outsource a great deal of their education policy setting to private corporations, such as Pearson, which sells curricula and designs tests, all to benefit its own bottom line?

In an ideal world, we could trust both, but unfortunately, our world is far from ideal. I, for one, start out more skeptical of the for-profit corporation than of our local teachers, principals, and school boards.

I was recently engaged in a discussion about the Common Core and the PARCC with a parent who is a strong proponent of the Common Core and the PARCC. He shared a little bit of his story, which illuminated the trust issue for me. In short, his oldest child began his education at a private school. The parents eventually learned that their child was lagging far behind his peers in the public schools, and moved the child to our public schools. But because those parents’ trust was broken early on by that private school experience, they’ve become huge proponents of testing to ensure that they receive up-to-date information regarding their children’s progress.

I hear and can relate to those concerns, although I find it ironic that it was a private school’s failure that triggered them.

My take, however, is different. As a parent, I start the school year each year trusting my kids’ teachers. Now, that doesn’t mean that such trust can’t be eroded over the course of an academic year. But over the years, in preschool and then in our public schools, of the 15 classroom teachers my kids have had, I’ve come across exactly one teacher who broke that trust. That’s not perfect, but those are still pretty good odds. So I’m willing to trust our schools and our teachers with our kids, and to trust that they have our kids’ best interests at heart. If I find that my trust is misplaced, I’m confident that I can go up our chain of command, and ultimately publicly air my concerns at a Board of Education meeting.

What those parents I told you about, whose trust in schools was broken by a bad private school experience, have effectively done is to substitute trust in their children’s teachers for trust in a test, under the mistaken belief that a test will ensure real accountability. And perhaps in a world where the tests are trustworthy, there’s no harm in trusting tests. But unfortunately, given the amount of time and energy I’ve spent inquiring into the PARCC tests, I think those parents are going to discover that their trust in the PARCC is at least as misplaced as their earlier trust in their child’s private school.

The PARCC consortium recently published its sample “Performance Based Assessments,” which New Jersey’s public school kids will be attempting starting just over a month from now. I have a fourth grader, so I took a quick look at the fourth grade math PBA this morning. Here’s a sample question:

Jian’s family sells honey from beehives. They collected 3,311 ounces of honey from the beehives this season. They will use the honey to completely fill 4-ounce jars or 6-ounce jars.

Jian’s family will sell 4-ounce jars for $5 each or $6-ounce jars for $8 each.

Jian says if they use only 4-ounce jars, they could make $4,140 because 3,311 divided by 4 = 827 R 3. That rounds up to 828, and 828 multiplied by $5 is $4,140.

Part A

Explain the error that Jian made when finding the amount of money his family could make if they use only 4-ounce jars.

Enter your explanation in the space provided.

Take a moment. Can you tell me the error?

Here’s the error: Jian’s math was correct, but his reasoning was mistaken, because he rounded up to 828 instead of down to 827, when the 828th jar won’t be totally full, so he can’t sell it for $5. So since his family can only sell 827 full jars of honey, the answer should have been 827 jars x $5/jar = $4,135.

What is this question really testing? Is it, as the PARCC’s proponents would state, testing whether kids “really understand” remainders and have the “higher-order thinking” skills necessary to pick up on the “trick” in this question? Or is it, as is obvious to any parent, testing whether our 9 and 10 year olds are (a) picking up on the word “completely” and (b) testing whether our kids have the life and business savvy to make the connection – under the pressure of a high-stakes test – that in this one case, they should be ignoring the remainder, instead of rounding to the nearest whole number.

My concern is compounded by the emphasis that the fourth grade Common Core math standards – and the Pearson produced Envisions math curriculum purportedly aligned to those standards – places on estimating, rounding, and reasonableness. This is a copy of one of my daughter’s Envisions math workbooks. The flagged pages are all pages that ask the kids to rely on estimating, rounding, or reasonableness to arrive at their answers. It’s not every page, but as you can see, the emphasis on those skills, which I’m not denigrating, is heavy. Given that emphasis, not only is this a trick question, but the kids themselves are already primed to miss the trick by the emphasis their standards and curricula place on estimating, rounding, and reasonableness.

Trick – and other unfair – questions like this are endemic throughout the PARCC practice tests I’ve reviewed. The English Language Arts questions are even worse. It is unfair by any measure to ask 9 and 10 year olds to type thematic essays about a Maya Angelou poem and a Mathangi Subramanian story. In addition, the essay prompt itself is ambiguously worded: the prompt asks the kids to “Identify a theme in ‘Just Like Home’ and a theme in ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me.’ Write an essay that explains how the theme of the story is shown through the characters and how the theme of the poem is shown through the speaker.”

What’s unclear from the language of the essay prompt is whether the kids should be identifying one theme common to both the story and the poem, or whether the kids should be identifying separate themes for the story and the poem.

One trend I’m sure you’re aware of across the state is that many of our high schools have been eliminating midterms and finals to make room for PARCC. The ambiguity of the essay prompt – and unfair trick of the math question – illustrate why eliminating local, teacher-created tests, midterms, and finals in favor of standardized tests is a bad idea. All teachers make mistakes – both in inadvertently drafting ambiguous questions and incorrectly grading answers, but kids are savvy and can point those mistakes out to the teachers. That’s built-in accountability.

Pearson and PARCC, however, are accountable to no one. Our teachers won’t even be allowed to look at – much less discuss – the PARCC tests. They won’t see the kids’ results, or where they might have been tripped up by a trick. So there will be no one to tell us which questions were unfair, ambiguous, or otherwise problematic. That is, there’s no accountability for Pearson, and as I’ve discovered this year, there is no question that even the Pearson materials – be they PARCC practice tests or Envisions – that the public does have access to have plenty of mistakes.

If the stakes for these tests were low – and the time they sucked away from “real” teaching was minimal – then I doubt the outcry would be so intense. Instead, however, these are the tests that even this year, unproven as they are, will make up 10% of teachers’ evaluations, and they will continue to take on an increasingly central role in evaluating our teachers, schools, and children. Not surprisingly, for those kids who don’t make the cut, Pearson now controls the G.E.D. test.

I urge you to carefully review the PARCC sample tests yourselves, keeping in mind the age level of the students who are intended to take them. Please recommend to the Governor that we join the dozen or more other states, including, most recently, Mississippi, in rejecting the PARCC as a valid means of assessing our kids. New Jersey’s kids deserve better.

Our New Jersey teachers and principals are accountable to our local communities. Where individual districts have ongoing problems with ensuring educational equity, the state can step in through its Quality Review system to address those problems on a case-by-case basis. But the PARCC test is setting up a narrative that all of our schools are failing. After spending significant time reviewing what’s happening in our schools and what’s contained on a for-profit corporation’s PARCC tests, I, for one, am confident that the problem is with the test, and not with our kids, our teachers, or our schools.

Thank you.

NJ Governor’s Task Force: Take the PARCC, I Did


Dear Members of Governor Christie’s PARCC Task Force:

I was one of those kids who always performed well on standardized tests. As a result of my scores, I was placed in gifted and talented programs, tracked into the honors and AP tracks (with their added boosts of inflated GPAs), and ultimately accepted to a highly selective liberal arts college. I wasn’t a particularly conscientious student, and I brought all sorts of hangups to my classwork (Carol Dweck is my hero, as I was definitely one of those kids who often didn’t complete assignments at all out of what I now believe was fear that I wouldn’t measure up to my “smart” reputation). But standardized tests saved me, and gave me a chance to “prove” my worth. You’d think I’d be the biggest cheerleader out there for our new, next-generation standardized tests. After all, standardized tests enabled me to skate through school until I finally matured enough to become a conscientious student while studying for my first graduate degree. Standardized tests served me well, so isn’t it time for me to return the favor?

Given that standardized tests have served me so well, I approached the Partnership for Assessment of College and Career Readiness (“PARCC”) sample problems and sample tests with an open mind. I first sat down to try some of the third through fifth grade sample math problems about a year ago. After that review, my major objection was to the technology, which makes solving math problems and justifying answers harder rather than easier. That is still true (although admittedly, the technology seems better than it was in January of 2014 when I first looked at these). But more recently, I first really sat with and reviewed the 4th grade English Language Arts practice test. My real concern now is with the English Language Arts tests.

I have a fourth grade daughter. She was first identified for our district’s gifted and talented program for English Language Arts in kindergarten, as she came into kindergarten reading chapter books. Her vocabulary and analysis skills remain quite advanced for a child of her age. And I can tell you that she retains the ability to imagine. Do you remember that, the ability to imagine with ease? Do you remember your childhood, when you could create imaginary worlds and people them with imaginary characters just by wishing them into existence? Do you remember building forts and castles that were as real to you as could be? For a moment, for just a moment, I ask you to call upon what is likely your long-stagnated power of imagination. Imagine yourself at nine or ten years old. Imagine your room, imagine your friends, and imagine your school work.

Then sit down. Keep yourself in your nine or ten year old mindset. Boot up your desktop, or power up your laptop, or unlock your iPad. Navigate to the PARCC website, at Navigate to the 4th grade English Language Arts PARCC practice test. Open it in front of you, right now, as you read this comment. If you refuse to sit down to take the sample tests yourself, then with all due respect I submit that farcical as this task force — with its 6 week window to issue recommendations — might be, you are not meeting you obligation as member of this task force. Remember as you work through the 4th grade PARCC practice test that you are not your current self — you are still your nine or ten year old self.

As you take the 4th grade English Language Arts PARCC test, stay in the head of nine or ten year old you. Imagine your nine or ten year old self reading the first story and the first poem. Imagine your nine or ten year old self trying to answer the questions regarding what evidence supports the meaning of certain words. I bet your nine or ten year old self can probably figure out the first answer. Your nine or ten year old self might even be about to figure out what evidence from the text supports that first answer.

What about the kid who already knows the definition of the word drift?

Now move on to the setting question. Imagine your nine or ten year old self attempting to distinguish which choices describe the setting. Remember that this is a “gotcha” question, as all five possibilities are described in the story, but the answer key states that the “correct” answers are only those that pertain to the settings in Priya’s present, and not to those settings that form the background for her memories. Did your nine or ten year old self know that without me first revealing the answer? Does your nine or ten year old self think it’s fair or appropriate to expect our nine and ten year olds to intuit that distinction? If your nine or ten year old self thinks this is unfair, do you think your nine or ten year old self is going to keep devoting his or her best efforts to completing this test?

Apparently 4th graders are supposed to magically know that this question only refers to the present-day setting, not to the settings described in Priya’s memories.

But keep imagining. Imagine, as you progress through the multiple choice questions, your nine or ten year old self constantly having to try to scroll up and down to get to the proper portion of the story that relates to the question. As you imagine, remember, as my ten year old daughter reported to me from one of her class’s PARCC practice sessions, that if you accidentally click outside the testing box as you scroll, you will be locked out of the remainder of the test. Imagine the anxiety you feel that you might accidentally mis-click.

I could make a reasonable argument for either B or C. What about you?

Now imagine your nine or ten year old self attempting to distinguish the structural elements that delineate the poem versus those that delineate the short story. Imagine your nine or ten year old self trying to relate to and analyze Maya Angelou’s poetry. Imagine your nine or ten year old self trying to figure out if “descriptions” applies to both.

I could argue that rhythm applies to both. What about you?

Finally, you’re up to the first essay. Now imagine your nine or ten year old self, hunting and pecking for each letter on the keyboard, trying to draft an essay in which you identify the theme of the poem and the theme of the story, and then to show how the characters in the story and the speaker in the poem “show” the theme. What themes did your nine or ten year old self pick? What does your nine or ten year old self think it means for the themes to be “shown through the characters”? Did your nine or ten year old self truly sit down and try to type out a well-written and intelligent answer to this essay? Did your nine or ten year old self remember to do this one finger at a time, laboriously hunting and pecking around the keyboard, now looking for a “c,” and later looking for an “f”? Did your nine or ten year old self write to the best of his or her ability, or did your nine or ten year old self just push to put something — anything — down on the screen as his or her frustration grew with the infernally slow progress of his or her typewritten thoughts? Does your adult self remember the frustration of trying to get your thoughts out on paper before your fingers could keep up with your brain?

What themes did you pick? Does the question require you to pick one common theme, or should you pick two separate themes? And how is a 9 or 10 year old going to explain “how the theme of the story is shown through the characters and how the theme of the poem is shown through the speaker,” anyway? Finally, if the PARCC consortium/Pearson actually believe that this question is appropriate for 9 and 10 year olds, why don’t they show us exemplars of actual student-written responses created under test-taking conditions?

Now, can you truly look me in the eye and tell me with a straight face that this is an appropriate task for our children?

Now, can you truly look me in the eye and tell me in all honesty that a child who cannot succeed on this task is not on track for college or a career?

Now, can you truly look me in the eye and tell me as if you mean it that preparing our children for this work is what their teachers should be spending the year doing?

Now, can you truly look me in the eye and tell me that your child self would believe that this test was fair, and would not give up before the end?

Now, can you truly look me in the eye and tell me with sincerity that years spent preparing for tests like these aren’t going to suck the joy, imagination, love of learning, and creativity out of children — and their teachers?

Can you truly?

My large extended family gathered this Thanksgiving for turkey and togetherness. At our gathering, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I spoke with my retired elementary school librarian aunt, with my aunt who works for a private tutoring center, with my college freshman cousin, and with my cousins whose kids are in third and fifth grade. They like my writing and they’re impressed by my activism, but none of them had really made the leap to think that my education activism is something that is really about them and their kids or their grandkids. They thought that their kids — like mine — are privileged enough to be good students in good public schools, and that these tests were really about the other kids, the kids without privileges and advantages, and that this fight had nothing to do with them.

But then I opened up my iPad. And I navigated to the PARCC fourth grade ELA sample test. And I made them try to take it. Each of them was appalled. Outraged. Infuriated.

So this is my request to this task force. Don’t issue a report or make recommendations until you sit down — publicly so that we know that you did it — and actually try taking these sample tests.  That is, to maintain any credibility at all, the task force must host — and participate in — Take the PARCC events across the state.

After that, you can move on to the other issues. After that, you can make recommendations.

After that, you can look at how often Pearson makes mistakes in its textbooks, and whether it’s reasonable to trust a company that makes such mistakes to design high-stakes tests that will eventually determine our students’ class placement and/or college graduation.

After that, you can look why it is categorically unfair — not to mention demoralizing — to have teachers’ performance reviews dependent on the outcomes of these tests.

After that, you can look at whether these tests improve children’s educational outcomes.

After that, you can look at whether the high-stakes nature of these tests encourages widespread cheating.

After that, you can look at whether failures on these tests contributes to destabilizing schools and communities that serve our most challenged children.

After that, you can look at whether the high-stakes testing culture discourages highly qualified teachers from entering (or, as I can tell you in my case, from returning to) the teaching profession.

After that, you can look at what portions of our high local property taxes and precious school budgets are now paid to the for-profit industry that has sprung up around these tests.

After that, you can look at whether these tests are doing more harm than good.

After that, you can look at whether these tests are forcing schools to narrow the curriculum, as the requirement to devote school hours and resources to teaching to these tests means that those school hours and resources are not being used for other, more precious, lessons.

After that, you can look at whether these tests are stamping out our children’s imaginations even earlier than we lost the abilities to easily access our own imaginations.

After that, you can look at whether Acting Commissioner David Hespe of the New Jersey Department of Education should be instructed to revise his PARCC “opt-out” guidance to ensure that the child of any parent who conscientiously objects to his or her child serving as a guinea pig for these tests will be provided with an alternate education experience during testing.

After that, you can look at whether — assuming we agree that this is the purpose of public school, which we don’t — student performance on these tests will tell teachers, parents, and members of the community anything whatsoever about whether these 9 and 10 year olds are on-track for college and careers.

But first — first — you need to take the tests.


Sarah Blaine, B.A. in English (Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT), M.A.T. in Secondary English (University of Maine, Orono, ME), J.D. (Rutgers University School of Law–Newark, Newark, NJ)

Dinner Table Depositions (or Whatever Happened to Horace Mann?)

by Sarah Blaine

“A republican form of government, without intelligence in the people, must be, on a vast scale, what a mad-house, without superintendent or keepers, would be on a small one.” — Horace Mann (educator & attorney)

Living in a house with a former teacher turned attorney can’t always be easy. It probably doesn’t help that my husband is also an attorney. As we share stories about our days around the family dinner table each night, our dinner table conversation almost invariably includes some legal discussion.

Then the questions start. My favorite first came about three years ago:

“What’s a deposition?”

How do you explain a deposition to a six year old?


All of my lawyer friends…

How do you do it?

You don’t.

You act it out.

Ok. Well, first we need to assign roles. E, you are going to be the witness.

— Okay.

E, do you want Mommy or Daddy to be your attorney?

— Mommy.

Ok. Then Daddy is going to be the attorney for your adversary.

J is going to be the court reporter.

— What’s a court reporter?

J, your job is just to sit there and pretend to type what we’re saying.

We show the two year old what to do and she bangs on the table like a court reporter for a minute and then returns to smearing peas onto her face and into her hair.

So then we need a hypothetical dispute. E’s across-the-street sometimes future-husband, sometimes arch-nemesis will do for an adversary. In our hypothetical, they’re fighting about sometimes-nemesis stealing E’s stuffed shark.

J again bangs on the table. M examines the witness. And E answers the questions.

We swear the witness and “go on the record.”

This witness giggles much more than your run of the mill deposition witness as we go through the preliminaries.


“When did your shark go missing?”

— Last week.

“What is your basis for stating that my client took your shark?”

— I saw him.



A few substantive questions in, M asks a ridiculous question and I object to the form of the question.

Then we go off the record to have a discussion about my objection.

We go back on the record and the questioning continues.

I object to the form of the question again.

And so forth.

After our first deposition dinner, deposition dinners, believe it or not, became a common request for a couple of years:

“Mommy, can we play deposition again?”

Thankfully, more recently they’ve petered out, as I think that M and I have been getting tired of generating hypotheticals and, to be honest, the last thing I want to do at the family dinner table is to act out a hypothetical version of my day job.

This is one example of our daughters’ dinner table civics education. Oh, and even my oldest is still a few years away from 6th grade.

But what do deposition dinners have to do with education policy?

Well, with the roll out of Common Core this year, we’ve been hearing a lot about the Core’s central goal.  That goal, of course, in case you’ve been hiding under a rock, is to ensure that every child graduates with the skills that will make her “College & Career Ready.” But before we do a close reading of what, exactly, “College & Career Ready” means (that is a subject for another day), can we start with the premise?

Why do we dedicate so many of our tax dollars to ensuring that every child in this country has access to a public education?

Is it because it’s our duty as a country to make sure our kids are “College & Career Ready?”

Or, dare I suggest, is it because, as a nation, we decided that an educated citizenry is a necessary component of a functional democratic republic?

Horace Mann is largely credited with the growth of the modern public school movement. I’m not sure how many of us realize that education wasn’t compulsory throughout the United States until the early 20th century.  Mann was a mid-19th century reformer who is credited with developing the system of Common Schools that would become our modern public school system (for the record, he too was a lawyer by training).

As this website explains:

Mann’s commitment to the Common School sprang from his belief that political stability and social harmony depended on education: a basic level of literacy and the inculcation of common public ideals. He declared, “Without undervaluing any other human agency, it may be safely affirmed that the Common School…may become the most effective and benignant of all forces of civilization.” Mann believed that public schooling was central to good citizenship, democratic participation and societal well-being. He observed, “A republican form of government, without intelligence in the people, must be, on a vast scale, what a mad-house, without superintendent or keepers, would be on a small one.”

I’m with Mann.

The number one reason I approve of my tax dollars supporting public education is that I desperately hope that we are an educated and informed citizenry that can look beyond the muckraking, grandstanding, empty rhetoric, and self-aggrandizing to vote for elected representatives who reflect our political philosophy and will advocate policies that we believe are best for our communities.  In short, I don’t want to live in a mad-house of a nation.

To avoid the mad-house, we need to educate students to learn lessons from history, to understand our government and how to advocate for themselves in our democratic republic, and provide our children with access to the education necessary to resist slick rhetoric in favor of reasoned discourse and critical analysis of what they read, hear, and view.  In the internet age, I believe these skills are more critical than ever.  I worry about standards for public education that tout college & career readiness rather than civic education as their central goal.

The public schools I attended did a great job teaching these skills. And I take my duty as a citizen seriously: I research candidates and issues before I vote, and I often find myself frustrated by the farcical nature of modern political discourse. But then again, I’m also a nerd and an amateur policy wonk.

So sue me. But don’t depose me at the dinner table.

I believe that educating an informed electorate is the central reason why we publicly fund public schools and why education is compulsory for all children.

College and career readiness? That’s just icing on the cake.

And what worries me when I review the introduction to the CCSS Grades 6-12 standards for History and Social Studies on the Common Core State Standards Initiative website, is that there is not a single mention of preparing students for their future roles as members of an informed electorate:

The standards below begin at grade 6; standards for K–5 reading in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects are integrated into the K–5 Reading standards. The CCR anchor standards and high school standards in literacy work in tandem to define college and career readiness expectations—the former providing broad standards, the latter providing additional specificity.

It seems to me that we have a philosophical and theoretical disconnect here.

Why do we fund public schools?

Why do we make public school compulsory?

Is it really all about “CCR” (College & Career Readiness)?

Does educating an informed electorate still matter in the wake of Citizens United?

Does justice require educated citizen jurors who are capable of sifting through facts to arrive at thoughtful and well-reasoned verdicts?

And if these things matter, shouldn’t preparation for citizenship be at least as much at the heart of our public education system as “College & Career Readiness”?

Or are we headed straight into the madhouse of Horace Mann’s nightmares?