It’s 2016, and PARCC Still Sucks

Here we are again.  It’s the spring of 2016, and the PARCC tests are once again looming for our children.  If you will recall, last year, New Jersey Commissioner of Education Dave Hespe’s initial response to the opt-out movement was dismissive: at last year’s NJEA convention, his take on the opt-out movement was: 

“We’re not seeing an opt-out movement across the state of New Jersey. The best I can tell, it’s one-tenth of one percent of tests returned to us that were not filled in.” 

To be honest, last year I thought the New Jersey opt-out movement would be doing great if 1% of New Jersey kids refused, as this would have been a ten-fold increase from prior years.  But of course, I was happily wrong, and instead approximately 13.5% of New Jersey students in testing grades refused the test, a more than one hundred-fold increase.   

This year, there is no question that Dave Hespe and the New Jersey Department of Education are taking us seriously.  They’re forcing schools that had more than 5% of students refuse PARCC to submit Corrective Action Plans; they’re apparently accepting the Chamber of Commerce’s/We Raise New Jersey’s offensive pro-PARCC presentation as a way of implementing a Corrective Action Plan; and they’re doing a public relations offensive, including today’s Star Ledger article, which points out five ways in which this year’s PARCC is allegedly slightly less onerous than last year’s version (spoiler: none of the ways include throwing out the high-stakes uses of the PARCC test).

But the impact of high-stakes standardized tests like PARCC on our public schools has not changed, and as someone commented on the Star Ledger article, all the superficial changes NJDOE and the PARCC consortium have made so far have had no more effect than painting some some lipstick on the PARCC pig.  So yes, Dave Hespe and his minions at NJDOE are taking us seriously, but their solution is to bully parents, students, and community leaders into submission, not to respond to our concerns.

So I still refuse.  And I encourage you to do so as well.

I still refuse because my 5th grader’s math homework is largely multiple choice questions rather than open-ended problems that allow her to show her work and her teacher to address her problems with reasoning or application of algorithms.

I still refuse because night after night, my 5th grader’s English Language Arts homework is still to read and answer multiple-choice questions about poorly-written, often out-of-context non-fiction passages from free test prep sites like  

I still refuse because my 5th grader is spending tons of in-school “Response to Intervention” time answering MobyMax test-prep questions instead of taking an extra arts or music or social studies elective.  

I still refuse because my 1st grader is literally biting her arm with boredom in class due to developmentally inappropriate curriculum paired with the unimaginative teaching it encourages.

I still refuse because aggregate test-results continue to be used to castigate and punish the few economically and racially integrated schools in our state (like those in my town) for the results of the opportunity gaps highlighted by the disparate scores of in-school subgroups on standardized tests.

I still refuse because across our state, test-prep is causing kids to lose out, in far more egregious ways than what my kids lose, on the arts, the music, the social studies, the hands-on science, and the community building that make public school a refuge for so many kids with few other options.

I still refuse because our leaders refuse to listen to parents, teachers, and community activists who are demonstrating that we can and should be doing better by our kids.  

I still refuse because despite their Study Commissions and State Board of Education hearings, our leaders in Washington and Trenton refuse to listen to the concerns of real parents, real teachers, real local Board of Education members, and real students, even though they pay lip-service to the notion of democratic control of (at least suburban) public schools.

I still refuse because too many of our state education bureaucrats and our local superintendents, principals, and board of education members are ignoring the fact that New Jersey passed a law on November 9, 2015 that specifically and explicitly prohibited Dave Hespe and his minions from withholding funds from our districts based on low PARCC participation rates.

I still refuse because my kids deserve better for their education — and so do yours.  I still refuse, and I hope you will too. 

Civics Lessons

The Study Commission Recommended That Our Kids Be Stuck Testing Into Eternity: Now What?

Yesterday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in New Jersey issued its long-awaited final report.  To the surprise of no one, the Governor’s minions Commission concluded that the PARCC test is wonderful, and that not only should New Jersey keep using it, we should require all high school students to take it to qualify to graduate starting with the Class of 2020, and require them to earn passing scores on the 10th grade English and Algebra I tests starting with the Class of 2021.  My older daughter is in the Class of 2023 (and my younger daughter is in the Class of 2027), so this has a direct impact on my family and me.  For the record, this year 36% of NJ students who took the 10th grade English Language Arts test receiving scores demonstrating that they met or exceeded expectations, and again, 36% of Algebra I test takers received scores reflecting that they’d met or exceeded expectations.

Here are the initial thoughts I shared on Facebook about the result:

Over a hundred people came out to the 3 public comment sessions. All but maybe ONE of them spoke against PARCC testing in NJ. Parents and educators everywhere — from teachers to my daughter’s recently retired building principal to our town’s superintendent — are opposed to this sham of a test. But the pre-determined outcome is in fact the actual outcome. Public comment had no impact whatsoever. 

The game is rigged, and it’s our children who are losing. But this outcome can be laid solidly at Chris Christie’s door, and the national media should hold him accountable for it. After all: he appointed the “independent” study commission; he appointed New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe; and he appoints all of the members of the New Jersey State Board of Education. So the buck stops with Christie. 

But on a structural level, the fact that ALL public education policy makers are ultimately accountable to one person demonstrates how broken and easily manipulated our state education policy truly is. 

We the Parents, We the Taxpayers, and We the People need to step in. It is time to demand change — an amendment to the NJ state constitution, if necessary, to get elected representation on the State Board of Education.  Rule making bodies like NJSBOE and NJDOE have tremendous power to interpret state education statutes however they see fit. They must be accountable to the people and not just to a governor dreaming of the White House. 

In NJ, our local school boards have abdicated policy making responsibility saying that they’re hamstrung by state mandates. And those state mandates come from entities that are all accountable only to our governor. Structural change is necessary if we want to preserve public education for our children and the future.

And here are my expanded thoughts (very expanded, I’m sorry, I’m a lawyer, I’m nerdy, and since I was reading through the enabling legislation myself for my own edification, I figured that at least a few of you policy nerds might want to follow along at home as well.  For the rest of you, don’t say I didn’t warn you…) about where we go from here.  I think I will do a separate post looking at the actual report itself to see if it measures up to the Common Core standards PARCC claims to measure.  Look for that tonight or tomorrow.  In the meantime, here goes…

A Brief Digression on the Death of Local Control

Wednesday night I plan to attend my local district’s Board of Education meeting.  For me, at least, the hot topic will be school tours, which are a big deal for parents of incoming kindergarteners and incoming middle schoolers in our all-magnet suburban school system.

Last weekend, a local micro-news blog created a brouhaha when it reported a scuffle between the district PTA council president and the superintendent over whether the district had decided to replace school tours with online videos. For a whole lot of reasons, I think school tours are important, so Wednesday night I plan to attend our local Board of Education’s next meeting to express my opinion during public comment.

Why does this matter? What is unusual about this vignette is how rare it is for our local Board of Education to actually have the authority to set policy about a school-related issue, so for once my comment might actually make a difference.  The only reason our local board has sole authority over this issue is that this is such a unique local issue that Trenton has not bothered to dictate tour procedures to our town.  But on virtually every other topic these days, most New Jersey education policy decisions emanate from Trenton, where the New Jersey Department of Education and the New Jersey State Board of Education issue implementing regulations for state education statutes, and issue policy guidance and bulletins to New Jersey school districts.

New Jersey’s Code of Ethics for School Board Members Demonstrates State Usurpation of Local Control 

New Jersey’s Code of Ethics for School Board Members, N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(a), requires local school board members to make this pledge even before they pledge to look out for the educational welfare of children:

“I will uphold and enforce all laws, rules and regulations of the State Board of Education, and court orders pertaining to schools.  Desired changes shall be brought about only through legal and ethical procedures.”

Although the local tide has turned and our local BOE seems slightly more independent now, for the past few years, our local school board interpreted this pledge as requiring it to slavishly follow Trenton’s mandates, regardless of whether the local board of education thought that such mandates might be harming our children.  Whether deliberately or not, they seemed to ignore the second sentence of that pledge, and nobody but nobody was willing to utter a peep against Trenton. Especially given that the Christie administration decided to ignore the legislatively enacted state aid funding formula (“SFRA”), I think they were all terrified to open their mouths and bring the wrath of Trenton down upon them in dollars of aid magically not allotted to our district.

So for the first couple of years in which I attended local Board of Education meetings, when the public spoke out – and speak out it did – about the harm that many of these state mandates were doing to children, our local BOE copped out by saying that these were decisions made in Trenton, and its hands were tied.  I urged it to take action to influence and change state policy, but was largely ignored, presumably as a naive gadfly, which I undoubtedly am.

From my talks with friends, colleagues, and fellow activists throughout the state, my understanding is that Montclair’s school board was far from alone in taking this position. This 2001 Code of Ethics for School Board Members seems to have served to hamstring many local school boards, depriving them of local control on any and all topics on which the State Board of Education and/or the New Jersey Department of Education have decided to opine.  The ethics rule, which sounds reasonable on the surface, has functioned to make our school boards little more than powerless rubber stamps for whatever state policies the NJDOE and the NJ State Board of Education decide to impose on New Jersey’s public school children.

NJ’s State-Level Policy Makers

So the real questions are – who are the members of the State Board of Education, and how does our Commissioner of Education get appointed?  Those are the true power brokers of education policy in the state, so let’s figure out how they get into office.  Here’s the answer:

The members of the NJ State Board of Education are appointed by the governor – currently, Governor Chris Christie, of course.  This is mandated by the New Jersey State Constitution of 1947 at Article 5, Section 4, Paragraph 4, which reads:

“Whenever a board, commission or other body shall be the head of a principal department, the members thereof shall be nominated and appointed by the Governor with the advice and consent of the Senate, and may be removed in the manner provided by law.  [irrelevant for our purposes section about the Lieutenant Governor’s appointment process]  Such a board, commission or other body may appoint a principal executive officer when authorized by law, but the appointment shall be subject to the approval of the Governor.  Any principal executive officer so appointed shall be removable by the Governor, upon notice and an opportunity to be heard.”

N.J.S.A. 18A:4-4 implements this constitutional requirement in the statute setting out how the New Jersey State Board of Education is chosen.  It reads, in relevant part:

“The members of the state board shall be appointed by the governor, by and with the advice and consent of the senate, for terms of six years commencing on July 1.”

What this tells us is that by now, given that we are in the seventh year of Governor Christie’s tenure, all of the New Jersey State Board of Education members were appointed, re-appointed or allowed to continue in office by Gov. Christie, and are beholden to him – and only to him – for their positions.

N.J.S.A. 18A:4-1 confirms that Art. 5, Sec. 4, Para. 4 of the Constitution applies to the state department of education, and that therefore the provisions about the appointment of a principal executive officer apply.  It reads:

“The state department of education is hereby continued as a principal department in the executive branch of the state government, and it shall consist of a state board of education, which shall be head of the department, a commissioner of education, and such divisions, bureaus, branches, committees, officers and employees as are specifically referred to in this title and as may be constituted or employed by virtue of the authority conferred by this title and by any other law.”

So again – who is responsible for appointing not just the members of the State Board of Education, but also the Commissioner of the Board of Education?  Chris Christie’s State Board of Education, subject to the governor’s approval, of course.  In fact, Dave Hespe can be removed by Chris Christie whenever Christie feels like it, so long as he gives his buddy Dave notice of his removal and an opportunity to plead his case first.

The long and the short of it is – New Jersey’s governor has a LOT of power over state education policy, especially since the 2001 local school board code of ethics hamstrung any local Board of Ed members who wanted to push back hard against asinine state mandates.  I have no idea of the backstory that led to the 2001 ethics law, but I do find it curious that the timing coincides with the federal government centralizing some control over education policy through the 2001 No Child Left Behind law.

Now, the legislature can, of course, override the State Board of Education by passing legislation abrogating Department guidance and/or Board-issued regulations.  However, to do so, it must pass such legislation through both houses of the legislature and, of course, get those bills signed by… you guessed it… the Governor.  And, of course, the implementing regulations for any such legislation passed by the legislature will be created and approved by… you guessed it… the State Board of Education.  So any way you parse it, the NJ governor has enormous control over what happens in our public schools, and among other negatives to this lack of checks and balances is the fact that governors with different policy prescriptions can wildly swing education policy from one election to the next.

The Study Commission 

Yesterday, as I mentioned at the top, the Governor’s “independent” Study Commission released its report on state testing in New Jersey, which concluded, unsurprisingly, despite around 200 in person or emailed public comments in opposition and virtually none in support, that the PARCC is super awesome.  But, of course, it’s absurd on its face to think that a Study Commission appointed by the same governor who is responsible for appointing the State Board of Education and the State Commissioner of Education would reach a different conclusion than whatever the governor’s office (or his presidential campaign) wanted it to reach.  All three of these entities are answerable only to Chris Christie, and as newspapers have reported throughout Governor Christie’s tenure, he is not hesitant to bully those who disagree with him into submission.  And when those who disagree with him are people he thinks should be loyal to him, the gloves truly come off.

So the Study Commission’s conclusion:

“However, one point must be abundantly clear: the Study Commission firmly believes all students in New Jersey’s public schools who are eligible should be required to take the State standardized assessment (i.e., PARCC).  Doing so will ensure all students are progressing well in their educational endeavors and all public schools are effective for all students.  High-quality assessments such as PARCC will hold schools accountable for serving all of their students, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds.  The Study Commission believes it will be impossible to effectively close achievement gaps between and among students without accurate and actionable information”

was pre-ordained.  Ironically, the Study Commission’s entire report would earn a big fat F under the Common Core Standards if it were graded according to PARCC scoring rubrics.  The reason for this, of course, is that paragraphs like the one I just quoted cite to absolutely no evidence to support their conclusions.

Where Do We Go From Here?

One of my takeaways from this sham of a process (and don’t even get me started on the Common Core Review Commission, which also issued recommendations yesterday, and which was, perhaps, even worse in terms of process, if that’s even possible) is that there is way too much power over education policy consolidated in the hands of one person in this state: our Governor.

There is no question that Governor Christie’s minions appointees on the State Board of Education and at NJDOE will gleefully embrace the Study Commission recommendations, and that so long as this governor or a successor who shares his education policy prescriptions remains in office, the people will have little to no ability to shape more student-friendly education policy.

It seems to me that from an education policymaking process standpoint, there are two takeaways to move New Jersey education policy in a productive direction:

(1) We need to amend the New Jersey State Constitution so that at least some of the members of the State Board of Education are elected officials, accountable directly to voters rather than to the Governor.  The governor’s control over the rule making process is way too all-encompassing, and at least some elected State Board of Education members would provide needed checks and balances for educational policy making in New Jersey.  Especially now, when the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (“ESEA reauthorization”; i.e., No Child Left Behind’s replacement) has moved a great deal of education policy making authority from the federal government back to the states, we need to ensure that state level education policy cannot be so easily held captive by special interest groups who’ve courted the governor, but no one else.

(2) We need to introduce and pass legislation that makes it explicitly ethical for local Board of Education members to push back against state mandates that harm students.  It seems to me Paragraph (b) of the Code Ethics should be strengthened and replace Paragraph (a) as the first duty of local school board members. Paragraph (b) currently reads:

“I will make decisions in terms of the educational welfare of children and will seek to develop and maintain public schools that meet the individual needs of all children regardless of their ability, race, creed, sex, or social standing.”

Our kids deserve local leaders with the authority to actually put the children’s best interests first.  As the Study Commision report hammers home, this administration can never be trusted to do that.

Who’s with me?

Updated to Add (1/13/2016): Apparently New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe agrees with me.  Here he is, quoted in yesterday’s Star Ledger:


New Jersey, let’s take our cue from New Jersey Education Commissioner and make a really good change to the New Jersey State Constitution.  It is time for We the People to reclaim our power over our children’s futures, instead of leaving that power consolidated in the hands of the New Jersey governor, currently Chris Christie; the unelected New Jersey State Board of Education, each of whom owes his current tenure in the job to Chris Christie; and Christie appointee, New Jersey Education Commission David Hespe.

Testing and the Re-Segregation of Public Ed

Today, I was part of a full house at the New Jersey Senate Education Committee as it considered bills and a resolution relating to the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career) tests.  Along with many other grassroots parent activists, I am frustrated by the Senate Committee Chair’s unwillingness to set down all of the much stronger PARCC bills passed by the New Jersey State Assembly for a vote in her committee.  Rather, only one of the four bills, prohibiting PARCC-style testing for grades K-2, was set down for a vote by her Committee.  Senator Ruiz also offered a substantially watered down replacement bill for the Assembly bill to notify parents of standardized testing.  Senator Ruiz’s version of the bill, for example, fails to require that parents be notified of information as basic as what use local districts will make of standardized tests administered to their children (e.g., will the tests factor into student placement into gifted and talent programs or remedial education, etc.).  

So instead, I focused my efforts on the two bills introduced by my terrific local state senator, Senator Nia Gill.  Senator Gill introduced two bills: one to require local districts to publish their PARCC opt-out numbers within 10 days of completing test administration, and the other to explicitly prohibit New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe from withholding state aid from districts with high PARCC refusal rates.  

The text of my full testimony is below.  In it, I address the elephant in the room: the use of standardized test scores as a proxy to encourage resegregation of school districts by class and, to the extent that class and race are unfortunately still correlated in this country, race.

My testimony:

My name is Sarah Blaine.  I am here today to in particular support Senator Nia Gill’s bills, S2884 and S2881.  No one is paying me to be here today: in fact, I took a day off work to attend this hearing.  I have two children, a kindergartener and a fourth grader, in the Montclair Public Schools. Both of them only get one shot at their educations.

When I saw changes in my older daughter’s curriculum as a result of Common Core, I sat down to read the standards.  I’m an attorney now, but before law school I taught high school English.  Given that I would have loved some standards (or, heck, books) as a new teacher in a rural community with few resources, I started out on the assumption that national standards were probably a good idea.

But then I watched what was happening in my daughter’s classroom change.  As PARCC loomed, homework became more test-prep focused, with multiple choice questions and written paragraphs that had to follow strict formulas.  I learned that my older daughter’s school had reduced the number of elective periods.  Social studies education virtually disappeared.  Science became reading the textbook and filling in blanks, instead of labs and hands on experimentation.  My 4th grader has not had a single field trip this year — and as far as I know, none are scheduled.  I realized that I was seeing a predictable result of high-stakes testing in action: my daughter’s school was narrowing the curriculum to increase the time available for test prep. 

In Montclair, as across the country, test scores are closely correlated with the socio-economics of the populations tested. Although Montclair is consistently characterized in the press as “affluent,” according to NJDOE statistics, over 20% of our total school population is economically disadvantaged. Montclair has two NCLB focus schools not because those schools are lousy — they’re not — but because we are one of the few NJ towns with an economically and racially diverse enough school population to demonstrate an achievement gap.  This has driven an increased emphasis on test prep, which benefits no one.

Last December my spunky 4th grader testified directly to our Board about why “PARCC stinks” based on how test-prep was taking over her classroom.  I can tell you this much: after that speech, which went viral and led to her live appearance on national television, I have no doubt, without any need for PARCC results, that when the time comes my child will be college and career ready. Of course, I already knew that: her parents’ advanced degrees, race, and socio-economic status make that a virtual certainty. If you policymakers want more children to succeed, you need to spend your time implementing equitable economic and housing policies to ensure that all citizens have the chance to join a robust and secure middle class.  

The Montclair Public Schools administration worked hard to implement — and, indeed, cheerlead for — PARCC.  However, locally I wasn’t alone in my concerns about the effect that PARCC was having on our schools: more than 42% of Montclair children refused PARCC.  However, we Montclair taxpayers were not even able to obtain that statistic from the school district without a fight.  That is why I support Senator Gill’s bill to ensure that taxpayers are afforded access to the testing numbers.

Recently, Education Commissioner Hespe — and Governor Christie — began explicitly threatening to withhold state funding from school districts with high PARCC refusal rates.  That threat is unacceptable, as the school district has no way to compel me or any other parent to allow our children to sit for these tests.  To be clear, I don’t say no because my child is anxious or scared. 

Rather, I say no to PARCC because I see, as a parent, the destructive effect that annual testing and high-stakes uses of annual results are having on the quality of education offered in our state’s traditionally high-quality public schools.  I see that aggregate test scores are used — be it by real estate agents or home buyers — as proxies for socio-economic status, with the effect of further re-segregating our communities.  I see it, and I get it, because I, too, looked at those test scores and school rankings when we were choosing the New Jersey community in which we wanted to raise our children.  But then I realized that I didn’t want my children growing up in the same narrow bubble that characterized my childhood in Short Hills — and instead of moving to the town with the highest test scores, we moved to Montclair.

If more New Jersey towns were integrated like Montclair, all of our children would learn a little more compassion, a little more wisdom, a little more humility, a little more sense of what’s possible, a little less fear of those not like them, and a little more awareness of how the accidents of birth can and do affect children’s futures.  But politically, that will never fly, so you continue to test children and communities into submission, instead of choosing the tough — and admittedly expensive — policies that might actually work.  Then, when parents like me say no, Commissioner Hespe tries to threaten us into submission.  And so I support Senator Gill’s bill to prevent Commissioner Hespe from withholding funds from districts like Montclair, where the parents have had the courage to say no to the destructive effects of high-stakes annual tests.

I ask you to support these bills because democracy cannot function effectively if it is predicated on failure to inform the citizenry of what is happening in our public schools.  I ask you to support these bills because democracy cannot function effectively if it is predicated on empty threats from state-level bureaucrats meant to intimidate parents and communities.  Our children deserve better.  Thank you.

David Hespe & The Immersive Logic of Test Prep

Studying for the bar exam requires stepping into a bizarre alternate reality. After three years of law school, my classmates and I celebrated our graduation and pretty much immediately began our bar studies.

I began with the PMBR prep course. The PMBR course is a supplemental bar course that focuses specifically on test taking strategies — and, to a lesser extent, content — for the Multi-state Bar Exam (“MBE”). All states other than Louisiana require aspiring attorneys to take the MBE, in which you have 3 hours in the morning and another 3 hours in the afternoon to answer 200 multiple choice questions. The questions are tricky, confusingly worded, and have multiple right answers: your job is to figure out which answer the test makers think is the “best” right answer. Depending on your state, your MBE score is somewhere around half of your total bar exam grade. The bar exam is high stakes: no one wants to risk failing the bar exam.

To be honest, ten years later I can’t remember whether I took PMBR’s 3 day course or its 7 day course. What I do remember is this: on the first day of the course, they gave us a sample MBE exam. After a lifetime of acing standardized multiple-choice achievement tests, I got maybe — maybe — a third of the sample PMBR MBE questions correct. Now, that might have been slick marketing strategy to convince me that the course was worth my new law firm’s money, but my take is that it was legit: I did poorly because I hadn’t yet immersed myself in the MBE’s bizarre logic.

The test prep worked. After a week of PMBR, I was scoring significantly better. I don’t recall details, but I do recall hours of analyzing individual exam questions, discussions of strategies for identifying and discarding tricky wrong answer choices, and of immersing my brain in the test maker’s logic. After PMBR ended, BAR/BRI (the comprehensive bar preparation course) began. For BAR/BRI, we packed into a large lecture hall to watch videotaped cram lectures in the bar subjects in the mornings (I still recall Seton Hall professor Paula Franzese’s Property songs, and especially her promise that when the bar exam was over, there would be ponies). In the afternoon, I sat in my house or my local library reducing my morning notes into easily memorized flashcards for cramming “black letter law” into my head.

When I couldn’t take it anymore, I picked up my then eight or nine month old from day care and played with her for awhile (yes, my first child was born in the fall semester of my third year of law school; in case you’re wondering, I graduated with high honors). Then I’d spend my evening studying more. About halfway through the BAR/BRI course, BAR/BRI had us spend a day taking a practice MBE. Because of my responsibilities as a mom, I’d been front loading my studies, and unlike many of my peers, I discovered at that point that I’d successfully immersed myself in the test-makers’ multiple-choice logic. As a result, I kicked the practice exam’s butt, and felt that I could focus the rest of my bar prep focused on the essay writing, with only a bit of continued MBE practice to keep my head in the game.

Bar exam essay writing was, again, its own unique genre. We were highly encouraged to write strictly according to the IRAC formula, in which we started with an Issue (e.g., “An Issue raised by this fact pattern is whether Fred is guilty of involuntary manslaughter”), then set out the Rule (“The elements of involuntary manslaughter are…”), then Analyzed the facts presented (“Fred’s actions meet the first element of involuntary manslaughter, because he…; Fred’s actions meet the second element of involuntary manslaughter, because he…”), and then stated our Conclusion (“Because Fred’s actions satisfy each of the four elements of involuntary manslaughter, he will be found guilty of involuntary manslaughter”). Bar exam essay writing makes for some scintillating prose.

When the bar exam arrived, my reaction was “Bring it on!” And four months later, I was gratified to learn that I’d passed. But the bar exam was a bizarrely arbitrary rite of passage. It was strange to realize that after three years of law school, I was unprepared to pass my chosen profession’s licensing exam without two months of intensive commercial test preparation. It was also strange to spend so much time learning “black letter law” (i.e., specific “rules” of law that would lead us to a particular correct answer). Even for the essays, analysis must lead you to a “correct” answer. This has nothing to do with the reality of legal practice, but it makes perfect sense to bar examiners because formulaic essays are far easier to grade. The same is even more true of the bar exam’s multiple-choice questions. Never mind that as a practicing lawyer your job is to see nuance, and to craft the best arguments you can (within the limits of your ethical responsibilities, of course) to support your client’s position. In ten years of practice, I’ve written a lot of briefs, but no judge has given me a multiple-choice test.

Compared to the bar exam, law school exams are a far closer approximation of what practicing attorneys actually do out in the real world. Many are open book, and whether open or closed book, the point of professor-written law school exams is to demonstrate that you’ve learned how to “think like a lawyer,” that is, that you’ve learned to apply legal principles to analyze and dissect the nuances presented by complex fact patterns. A typical law school issue spotter will say something like, “Read the following fact pattern [anywhere from a couple of paragraphs to a page or two]. Identify the legal issues.” And then you’ll discuss the facts, apply the legal principles you’ve learned to those facts, and analyze the interplay of facts and legal principles. The point is to figure out whether you can see the areas of concern, so that when you enter practice someday, you’ll be able to listen to your client and figure out where to start researching whether he has a case. On a law school issue spotter, there generally isn’t a right answer: the professors care more about whether your analysis makes sense than whether you’ve correctly memorized the legal principles, as they know that any lawyer worth her fees (and who values her license) will do research before making recommendations to her client.

The strangest part of the bar, however, was getting my bar results two months into my new job as a baby lawyer at a large law firm. It wasn’t strange because I’d passed: I’d worked hard and I knew I had a decent head on my shoulders. What was strange was getting that score and realizing how little bar exam study had done to prepare me for the actual job of being a baby lawyer.

When I started in private practice, I didn’t know how to do anything:

I didn’t know how to file a motion.

I didn’t know what a motion was.

I didn’t know how to draft a certificate of service.

I didn’t know that you needed to submit a proposed form of order along with your motion.

I didn’t know what a case management conference was.

I didn’t know what a discovery plan looked like.

I hadn’t participated in a large-scale document review.

I didn’t know how to mark exhibits or move them into evidence.

I certainly didn’t know how to write a deposition outline.

I had no experience taking depositions, and didn’t know the first thing about how to manage a witness.

I didn’t know what an in limine motion was.

I didn’t know that there was such a thing as a trial brief.

I knew nothing about recruiting and working with expert witnesses.

In short, like every other baby lawyer, I didn’t know squat about how to actually succeed in my chosen career (other than what I’d learned the prior summer when I’d worked as a summer associate at my new law firm). If I’d started out as a solo practitioner, I would have committed malpractice. Thankfully, however, all that issue-spotting had earned me a position at a law firm with the resources to provide me with intelligent supervision and strong on-the-job training.

Ten years on, I find that I do use the skills tested on those law school issue spotter exams. In particular, I can read the file on a new case, and use the analytical skills I honed in law school to analyze the issues in light of the law, do (or assign) research where needed, determine what additional facts I need to learn, and make recommendations to my colleagues or my clients. When we learn new facts, I can adjust our initial analysis as needed to account for the changes and to craft new strategy. Those are skills evolved from prepping for those convoluted issue spotter law school exams.

However, ten years into private practice, I don’t draw on my two months of intensive bar test prep to advise my clients or manage my work. I don’t rely on essay formulas to craft my briefs, and of course I have never encountered an MBE-style multiple choice question. But the thing is… PMBR and BAR/BRI worked. Test prep works. Test prep taught me to immerse myself in the logic of the test-makers, and how to effectively game the system to achieve my goal: a passing score. In the past ten years, I’ve occasionally encountered some pretty crappy lawyers, but they all have one thing in common: they passed the bar exam.

The fact that test prep works is what scares me as a public school parent, because as a parent I know that my child’s standardized test scores tell me virtually nothing about whether she’s actually mastered the academic skills she needs for a successful future.

My two months of bar test prep taught me that mass-produced bar prep can successfully raise scores: my MBE score skyrocketed when I left my inquisitiveness, curiosity, and thoughtfulness at the door, and instead immersed myself completely in the test-makers’ logic. I was willing to engage in two months of intensive test-prep because the stakes were so high: I could have lost my new job for failing the bar. Test prep was a means to an end, and it was an end I wanted (passing the bar so I could begin my career as a litigator at a large law firm), so I was willing to spend (my firm’s) money and my time on the commercial test prep courses. Thankfully, though, our (generally tenured) law school professors focused on preparing us for the practice of law, and not on preparing us for a soon-to-be-forgotten standardized test.

But what will my child gain from devoting 9 of her 13 years of public education to test prep? She might become a genius at immersing herself in the logic of the test makers, but will she learn to write purposefully and well? Will she learn to creatively attack a problem? Will she learn empathy and art appreciation and history and how to work as a member of a team? I fear that the answer is no, or at least not nearly as much as she would have if testing wasn’t driving curriculum.

Thankfully, my older child attends a school where the bulk of the teachers have tried hard to minimize the encroachment of test prep on the “real” curriculum, but even so, it seems to me that my 4th grader is bringing home fewer challenging projects that engage her as a learner. Tonight she complained that her teacher has been racing through math curriculum so that they’ll have “covered” all of the topics they need for the PARCC End of Year testing. Fortunately, my kindergartener attends a K-2 public school that is relatively insulated from the test-taking pressures. Her class is making daily observations of their tadpoles’ development. Tonight at dinner the little one flummoxed the older one by explaining the functions of the cerebrum, the cerebellum, and the pre-frontal cortex.

I am thrilled that our local district’s test-focused superintendent (with her district-wide quarterly assessments to determine whether our kids were on track to succeed on the statewide annual assessments) recently resigned, and her interim replacement is a career educator who seems interested in putting exactly as much focus on standardized test scores as they’re worth. But not all children are in a district where progressive education seems to be making a resurgence.

Test prep — defined as taking concrete steps to get children into the heads of the test-makers — works. It really does, even on a test that’s allegedly of critical thinking, such as the bar exam (and, presumably, the PARCC). So as the stakes continue to grow, teachers will understandably be more and more tempted to engage in intensive test-prep (although bills to change this are in progress, under current New Jersey law, this year’s PARCC scores are worth 10% of teachers’ evaluations, but next year’s scores will be 20% of teachers’ evaluations, and the year after that PARCC scores will be 30% of teachers’ evaluations). Even where the teachers are not tempted, their principals or superintendents or even New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe may put unbearable pressure on them to raise scores — and coerce parents to allow their children to test — by any means necessary. For instance, just today (now, technically, yesterday) in an interview with the Newark Star Ledger, David Hespe threatened

“We are going to do whatever is necessary to make sure that we have a comfort level moving forward that we are going to hit that 95 percent,” Hespe said. “This is not a no harm, no foul situation here.”

Under Hespe’s vision, public schools will become publicly-funded versions of BAR/BRI and PMBR courses, and a child-centered, holistic public education will become rarer and rarer. Parents will be threatened and coerced to let their children test or risk further state intervention and loss of funds for their local districts (which already experienced drastic cuts in state aid under the Christie administration). The privatization movement will rejoice, as public school parents with the means will opt-out completely by sending their children to private school. Fewer parents of privilege will be left to speak out, and public education will instead continue its march to the test-prep driven bottom as it serves a higher and higher percentage of students whose parents can’t offer them other options.

I’ve refused to allow my test-aged child to test, because I believe in public education. My children attend public school in Montclair, New Jersey because I know that all children do better when they attend high-quality, integrated public schools with children whose life experiences differ from their own. It’s that vision of diversity and equitable opportunity that I want for my children, and that I, for one, believe is critical to keeping the American dream alive. Yet state bureaucrat David Hespe threatens local districts — and tries to sow division — in integrated local districts like ours because so many of us Montclair parents from all walks of life have joined together to protest PARCC’s destructive effects.

As I watched our local schools narrow curriculum and move toward a test-prep focus for two years under the reins of our test-driven (now former) superintendent, I toyed with the idea of pulling my kids out of their integrated public schools and sending them to private school (knowing that doing this would have required us to sell our house in our beloved neighborhood), but doing so would be a defeat. Instead, I elected to fight for our public schools by writing, speaking, and ultimately refusing to allow my child to take the PARCC tests. I will continue to do so.

The scary thing is: test prep works. That’s why it’s so tempting to teachers, principals, and school district officials whose careers are on the line. And that’s why we parents are the last line of defense. David Hespe might want to, but no one can fire us. That’s why we parents must stand firm against pressure such as that exerted today by David Hespe. It is up to We The Parents to ensure that our nation’s public schools in all neighborhoods remain — or become — more than test-prep factories. Our kids deserve no less.

The last time David Hespe threatened us public school parents, it backfired on him. In fact, I, for one, give him (through his October 30, 2014 memo threatening sanctions for opting out) credit for single-handedly sparking New Jersey’s until then minuscule PARCC refusal movement. Now, instead of learning from his mistake, David Hespe has doubled-down on his punitive approach to public education. Today, Hespe announced his strategy of trying to ensure public school parent capitulation to PARCC by threatening to further interfere in our local school districts and perhaps even withhold state funding.

One would almost be tempted to think that Hespe has bought into (or been bought by) the immersive logic of the test-makers. Hespe’s reasoning skills might get him a passing score on a standardized test, but reasoning his reasoning will get him nowhere in the court of public opinion. We New Jerseyeans are contrarian by nature. David Hespe, please take note: threats to inflict collective punishment on entire communities because New Jersey parents have refused the PARCC tests as an act of conscience and courage are far more likely to infuriate than subdue us. We New Jersey taxpayers — and our kids — deserve a state education policy maker with real world — and not test prep — reasoning skills. I don’t need to wait five months for his score: Hespe failed the test.

Pearson’s Yellow Brick Road

I have never been happier that we refused to allow my fourth grader to take the PARCC. Yesterday, I asked her what she’s heard at school about the PARCC tests her peers have been taking. Although she has never sat for a PARCC test herself, she was able to tell me that some of the 4th grade PARCC reading passages were from the Wizard of Oz (apparently one passage was about the Emerald City, and another told the story of the Tin Man). So in theory, if your child has not yet sat for the 4th grade PARCC, you could embark on a Frank Baum marathon this weekend to give your child a leg up on his or her upcoming PARCC test.

This is one of the many logistics issues that has never made sense to me about the PARCC test security protocol: especially in the age of social media, how could the state departments of education and Pearson possibly have expected their testing materials to remain secret when one 4th grader might take the test as early as March 2nd, but that child’s cousin in another district might not be scheduled to take the same test until March 20th?

Well, now we know. As you have probably heard, yesterday afternoon blogger (and former Star Ledger education reporter) Bob Braun reported that Pearson is monitoring children’s social media accounts to look for Tweets and other social media posts that allegedly compromise the security of its PARCC tests. Here in New Jersey, at least, when Pearson finds what it believes to be test-security infractions, it then tracks down those students’ personal data to figure out what schools they attend. Then Pearson reports the alleged infractions to the New Jersey Department of Education (“NJDOE”). As of yet, we parents have no idea if the NJDOE stores the report of this alleged infraction in its NJSMART database. What we do know is that the NJDOE has been notifying individual districts’ test coordinators of their students’ alleged infractions. Furthermore, we know that NJDOE has requested that the individual districts punish students for writing about test questions on social media.

Today, Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post (yes, the same Valerie Strauss who graciously publishes many of the pieces I’ve written for this blog) confirmed the story, and obtained additional information from both the Watchung Hills Regional High School superintendent who expressed her concerns about the practice in the email published on Braun’s blog and from a Pearson spokesperson.

So what does it all mean? Pearson thinks its monitoring (like Peter Greene, I think that Braun’s term, “spying,” misses the mark, as there is no expectation of privacy when you post a Tweet, at least) is hunky-dory:

The security of a test is critical to ensure fairness for all students and teachers and to ensure that the results of any assessment are trustworthy and valid.

We welcome debate and a variety of opinions. But when test questions or elements are posted publicly to the Internet, we are obligated to alert PARCC states. Any contact with students or decisions about student discipline are handled at the local level.

We believe that a secure test maintains fairness for every student and the validity, integrity of the test results.

I think that Pearson, however, has missed the mark. First of all, what, exactly, is an “element” of a test question? Are the Pearson Police going to be at my doorstep tomorrow because I mentioned that I heard from my kid (who herself has not and will not sit for the test) that the 4th grade PARCC includes excerpts from Frank Baum’s work? And if I can’t — as I can’t — be held accountable for posting the tip above, why is it okay for Pearson, through its patsy, the NJDOE, to seek to impose disciplinary action against students who allegedly shared “test elements” (although not, according to the student’s superintendent, a tweet containing a photograph of the test itself)?

Second, what does it mean for a test to be “secure”? Does Pearson really think that kids are not talking about these tests among themselves? Does Pearson really think it can bind our kids to secrecy? The last time I checked, our kids were minors — and therefore they, unlike their teachers, cannot be bound to a non-disclosure agreement even if it could be argued that our kids receive consideration in connection with these tests (and, my lawyer friends, even if there was consideration and such a contract could bind a minor, it sounds awfully like a contract of adhesion, anyway…). Along those lines: are our kids being instructed to keep the test materials secret? As a practical matter, it strikes me as pathologically naive to think that such instructions to kids could actually work.

But more importantly, as a parent, I vehemently object to adults in our schools instructing children to keep secrets from their parents. In this day and age, we parents work hard to make sure that our kids know that they can talk to us about anything — and that openness is how we parents try to thwart possible predators and bullies, because we know that predators and bullies use children’s shame and fear to hide their abuse of children. Indeed, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends:

Teach children early and often that there are no secrets between children and their parents, and that they should feel comfortable talking with their parent about anything — good or bad, fun or sad, easy or difficult.

So if you think I’m mad about these tests now, Education Commissioner Hespe and Pearson’s Brandon Pinette, I better not hear that our schools are sending our children mixed messages by telling kids to be open with parents  and trusted adults — except when it comes to testing.

Third, what sort of people has Pearson hired to track children’s social media presences, and what steps has Pearson taken to ensure that its employees are properly vetted before it directs them to obtain personally identifiable information about our kids? Have Pearson’s employees been required to submit to background checks? It seems an odd person who would choose to make his or her living by delving into individual children’s social media use to the extent that the person can figure out the school the child attends. How are those people vetted? What steps has Pearson taken to safeguard our children? And should a private company, which is not subject to public oversight through OPRA, really be tasked with obtaining this sort of information regarding our children?

Finally, what does it mean that the NJDOE (and also, apparently, other state education departments, such as the Maryland equivalent) has so cavalierly agreed to a scheme that encourages a for-profit corporation to hire adults to monitor children’s social media for supposed test security breaches? The twitter hashtags that have sprung up in response to this scandal seem largely on point:


Yes, it doesn’t shock me that Pearson, a for-profit corporation, is scanning our children’s social media, but it’s  disturbing that Pearson is reporting the results of its social media monitoring of children to government agencies (presumably in return for the $108 million that NJDOE is paying Pearson to administer these tests). In particular, Pearson is reporting kids’ alleged test-security infractions to a government agency — the NJDOE — that maintains a database with a personal identification number for each and every public school student in New Jersey. Assuming for the sake of argument that our children are somehow precluded from freely sharing — either in conversation or via social media — the reading passages and questions asked of them on the PARCC, are we parents really okay with the NJDOE possibly noting our children’s poor judgment on their records of our children’s academic careers? I have no idea if NJDOE is tracking this information or not, of course — but then again, until yesterday I didn’t know that NJDOE was regularly receiving reports from Pearson about New Jersey children’s social media use either.

It’s been a long time since I read Orwell’s 1984, but it really does feel like Pearson and the NJDOE expect parents to be okay with such corporate and government intrusion into their children’s lives. Maybe my opposition to this level of Orwellian intrusion is naive, but I, for one, find this level of intrusion into our children’s lives downright creepy. And I think that the New Jersey Department of Education officials who condoned this without full advance disclosure to the public should be summarily fired. David Hespe, that means you.

Parents, if, until now, you’ve let your kids take these tests, remember: you can still choose to refuse.

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.

Cowardly David Hespe Hid From The Parents Who Overwhelmed The NJBOE Today To Say No To PARCC

Today, somewhere in the neighborhood of one hundred parents, students, teachers, school board members, and other New Jersey professionals gathered at the River View Executive Building Complex in Trenton, New Jersey to prove just how out of touch New Jersey Comissioner of Education David Hespe is with New Jersey parents, students, teachers, and community members. In particular, as you may recall, David Hespe claimed that there was no opt-out or test refusal movement in New Jersey. Today, we proved him wrong

For those who don’t recall, on October 30, 2014, then Acting Commissioner Hespe issued guidance to school districts and charter school leaders in which he suggested (but did not require) that they institute punitive measures in an attempt to squelch New Jersey’s opt-out/test refusal movement before it got started. Hespe’s guidance backfired. Instead, he just pissed me — and countless other New Jersey parents — off. Today was our first chance to publicly speak out to Hespe’s sort-of bosses, the New Jersey State Board of Education (Hespe’s real boss is Governor Chris Christie, and there is no doubt in my mind that regardless of what the NJBOE does next, Hespe will continue to dance to PARCC’s tune until Governor Christie tells him to change course).

I arrived at around 10:40 this morning. The presentations to the Board were already in full swing, and the room was so full that I couldn’t even get standing room, so a friend and I waited out in the hall. The crowd continued to grow. I believe that 96 people were signed up to speak, but although a few speakers didn’t show, there were plenty of other non-speaking parents, teachers, community activists, and local school board members who had come to listen and/or show their support.

Unfortunately, NJBOE’s protocol is to divide public comment speakers among four different rooms, and to assign 1-2 NJBOE members to listen to comment in each room. Although this is far more efficient in terms of time (even then, there’s a 5 minute time limit, but enforcement was much less draconian than enforcement of the 3 minute time limit at our local Montclair Board of Education meetings), it’s unfortunate that the press, fellow attendees, and Board Members themselves do not get to hear more than a small sample of the total comments presented. Intentional or not, this diminishes the power of a large turnout of parents almost universally united around a common issue (here, opposition to PARCC and similar high-stakes standardized testing).

Here are both halves of Room A (with filming by the Asbury Park Press, as I understand it):

And here are both halves of Room B:























Here is Room C, where I testified:








And here is Room D:
As you can see, among the four rooms, there were a LOT of citizens, most of whom, like me, took a day off from work because we think it is important that the NJ State Board of Education hear from parents and students about the mess the PARCC is creating in our schools. I don’t have accurate numbers, because many people came to be supportive without speaking, but I’d guess that the turnout easily exceeded 100 people.
Perhaps the most gratifying part of the event for me personally was to hear from the half-dozen or so children who’d come to testify. Almost all of them told me that they’d been inspired to come testify by my daughter Elizabeth Blaine’s public comment to the Montclair Board of Education a couple of weeks ago, which I haven’t mentioned also led to us getting interviewed (to my enduring political chagrin, but it’s nice that we have common ground on something) on Fox News’s Fox & Friends morning show. Just in Room C, we heard from a 10 year old girl, a 7th grade girl, and a 9th grade boy. All three were opposed to PARCC and the related test prep.
It was also terrific to get to meet — in person — many of the fellow New Jerseyeans I’d only connected with virtually through our shared opposition to these tests. I’m only sad that because of the four-room set up, I didn’t get to meet a number of other terrific leaders that I know were there.
But the major takeaway from today is that there is a strong — and rapidly growing — PARCC refusal movement in New Jersey. And it was great to see members of the press, from the pieces that already appeared on the Star Ledger and the Asbury Park Press website to the appearance of reporters from NJ101.5 to The Alternative Press – Edison (and there may well have been other reporters I wasn’t aware of). Go readd the Star Ledger and Asbury Park Press articles: their reporters didn’t pull any punches today. The bloggers were out in full force too. Here’s a piece from Marie Corfield that contains some stunning news: following the comments he listened to today, the President of the NJBOE apparently stated publicly that they know that they can’t force kids to take this test. I’ll add more blog links as I come across them.
Take note, Commissioner Hespe. You declared war on the parents and students of New Jersey back in October, but we are organizing, we are rallying, and we are fighting back. I did note, however, that you were too cowardly to sit in any of those rooms to hear for yourself what the parents and students of New Jersey are saying. I heard from more seasoned activists that this was par for the course from you — you apparently don’t deign to bother with public comment. That’s all part and parcel with the CCSS/PARCC playbook, of course, which generally fails to prioritize democratic values. I don’t think your disappearing act gives you cover to continue claiming that New Jersey doesn’t have a growing opt-out/test refusal movement.
Watch out, Commissioner Hespe: this is one war we’re going to win.
Finally, Governor Christie, with your PARCC study commission that has not yet publicly released the preliminary report that was due on December 31, 2014, don’t think your teflon governor act is going to allow you to escape blame for imposing PARCC and Common Core on the people of New Jersey. Trust me, from the brief foray I made into the world of Fox News, your national base isn’t impressed with your Common Core and PARCC cheerleading. Your national ambitious may well hang on this issue.
We lefties won’t rally behind you on this either.
Ironically, Governor Christie, through your minion David Hespe, you are a uniter: you are uniting the left and the right, the rich and the poor, the white and the black, the native English speakers and the English Language Learners, in shared opposition to your market driven education reform policies — including, but not limited to, your imposition of PARCC onto the people of New Jersey. It was a powerful thing to watch as the wealthy and privileged parents from Basking Ridge made common cause with parents from Newark. We don’t resemble each other in race, socioeconomic status, or political affiliation. But one thing was clear: no matter what our backgrounds, none of us want you to dismantle our public schools.
And we all agree on one thing: education is a necessary ingredient for democracy. A policy aimed at dismantling public schools is a policy aimed at devolving democracy into demagoguery.
We won’t forget. And we won’t — we can’t — let you win.

Hespe’s Flawed Analogy

In an article in today’s New Jersey Spotlight, Acting Commissioner Hespe confirmed that my initial analysis of his guidance was spot-on. He said:

“A good parallel is compulsory attendance. Parents don’t have the option, students are supposed to go to school. The same with [opting out], they don’t have that option.”

But it is the Acting Commissioner’s analogy that is flawed. Parents — who have the right to direct their children’s educations — may opt-out of school (and related testing) by homeschooling their children without fear of negative consequences for the children or themselves. See N.J.S.A. 18A:38-25. It’s been more than a decade since I took Constitutional Law and I haven’t done detailed research on this (see my prior disclaimer), but as I recall, Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925), was pretty unequivocal in holding that parents’ rights trump states’ rights when it comes to the education of their children. It’s not unreasonable to believe that courts would be willing to hold that parents’ rights to direct their children’s educations, as enshrined, inter alia, in Pierce v. Society of Sisters and N.J.S.A. 18A:38-25, might well extend to refusing PARCC without giving up our right to a public school education for our children.

I believe, at a fundamental and basic level, that strong public schools are necessary for democracy. NJDOE, through Acting Commissioner Hespe, perhaps unintentionally, or perhaps by design, is attempting to force opt-out parents into choosing between abandoning public schools (as students at private school and homeschooled students are exempt from PARCC testing requirements) or allowing their children to sit for developmentally inappropriate tests. This isn’t a choice parents should be forced to make — and as the Supreme Court held way back in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, when it comes to directing children’s education, parents’ rights trump the state’s rights.

NJDOE’s Declaration of War

I am an opinionated blogger, and I blog here in my personal capacity. Unlike some other bloggers doing excellent work in the world of education policy and beyond, I do not claim to be a citizen journalist objectively reporting the news. I’m just a mom with a keyboard and opinions. I occasionally manage to put my thoughts into words as I explore education policy from my perspective as a public school parent. And although I am an attorney, I do not pretend to be blogging in my professional capacity, and I certainly do not intend any of my musings here as legal advice.

That being said.

That being said.

That being said, New Jersey’s Acting Commissioner of its Department of Education, David C. Hespe, appears to have declared war on parents and children who oppose his standardized testing policies.

Specifically, today the Acting Commissioner issued guidance to chief school administrators, charter school lead persons, school principals, and district and school test coordinators regarding “Student Participation in the Statewide Assessment Program.”  Go read it yourself.

But here’s my synopsis:

This. Means. War.

Acting Commissioner Hespe has declared war on us — and our children.

Acting Commissioner Hespe advocates punishing children for their parents’ political opposition to NJDOE’s destructive over-testing policies.

NJDOE has crossed the line.

Hespe says:

We have received a number of inquiries regarding the ability of parents and students to choose to not participate in the statewide assessment program, including the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessment. In an effort to clarify school district responsibility in this regard, the Department is providing the following guidance.

First, I want to take a moment to celebrate each and every person who has forced the Acting Commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Education, David Hespe, to respond to the opt-out/refusal movement.

Thank you for fighting back against the over-testing of our children along with its predictable results: test-prep focused classrooms practices and narrowing of curriculum (just once, I’d like to see social studies instruction at my daughter’s school that is something more than map skills). There is something wrong when our 9 year old fourth graders are expected to sit for more testing than our state’s aspiring attorneys must take to become licensed to practice law. (A New Jersey fourth grader is expected to sit for 10 hours of PARCC testing plus 90 minutes of NJ ASK science testing, for a total of 11 hours and 30 minutes of testing. The New Jersey Bar Exam is a total of 11 hours and 15 minutes of testing.)

I am still in the process of educating my fourth grader about the pros and cons of the PARCC testing, and as a parent of a high-functioning and inquisitive fourth grader who does not suffer from test anxiety, I am letting her have input into the decision our family is going to make regarding whether she will be sitting for these tests this spring, rather than forcing my decision on her. After all, this is her education, and she is the one who will ultimately suffer any consequences. As much as I’d dearly love to just refuse on her behalf, I won’t do so unless she is on board. So for now, our family remains on the fence.

Second, Hespe’s key argument supporting testing is: “Federal funding of key education programs is dependent upon districts meeting [No Child Left Behind’s Adequate Yearly Progress] requirement.” Really? That’s the best you’ve got?

Note that Hespe does not identify which key education programs’ funding is contingent on our kids taking these tests. As FairTest.Org notes, “In a state with a waiver, a ‘priority’ school must set aside 5-15% of its federal Title I and II funding to use in state-approved programs in the school. The money is not ‘lost.’ It generally may be used for various school improvement efforts.” Here’s the link. New Jersey is a waiver state, so I’d love to know exactly what federal funding the Acting Commissioner believes my daughter’s school will lose if she and more than 5% of her peers refuse the test. I have not done the research myself, but from the limited reading I have done, it appears that this is a toothless threat.

Third, here is Acting Commissioner Hespe’s actual guidance — or, more accurately, his declaration of war:

In accordance with the above, State law and regulations require all students to take State assessments. For the 2014-2015 school year, the PARCC assessment will replace the prior statewide assessments – the NJASK in grades 3-8 and HSPA in high school; as such, all students shall take the PARCC assessment as scheduled. Since the PARCC assessment is part of the State required educational program, schools are not required to provide an alternative educational program for students who do not participate in the statewide assessment. We encourage all chief school administrators to review the district’s discipline and attendance policies to ensure that they address situations that may arise during days that statewide assessments, such as PARCC, are being administered.

In short, Hespe says:

  • State law requires all students to “take” State assessments;
  • PARCC is required by the State, so schools are not required to provide an alternative education program for students who do not participate in the statewide assessment; and
  • NJDOE “encourages” all chief school administrators to review district discipline and attendance policies “to ensure that they address situations that may arise during days that statewide assessments, such as PARCC, are being administered.”

Let’s take Hespe’s Declarations of War one at a time.

(1) State law requires all students to “take” State assessments and “all students shall take the PARCC assessment as scheduled.”

Or what?

Or what, Acting Commissioner Hespe?

At the end of the day, no one at my daughter’s school can force her to click a mouse, type on a keyboard, or pick up a pencil.

So I say, bring it. It doesn’t take a Ph.D to realize that it is fundamentally wrong to base education policy on essays our fourth graders are required to type — when they’ve never taken typing classes. Last spring when I began exploring these tests, I watched my daughter struggle for over 7 minutes to input the answer to a math question she’d solved in 30 seconds.  I’m a mom and a former teacher, and I see no value whatsoever in tests that measure my 4th grader’s computer savvy rather than her academic skills.

(2) PARCC is required by the State, so schools are not required to provide an alternative education program for students who do not participate in the statewide assessment.

Last spring, as New York’s opt out movement alone grew to more than 60,000 students, a lot was written about so-called “sit and stare” policies. See, e.g., this piece from The Answer Sheet blog at The Washington Post

But unless I’m fundamentally misreading this memo, Hespe appears to be encouraging districts to adopt sit and stare policies in an effort to intimidate parents into not opting their kids out.

Bring it on, Acting Commissioner Hespe. Bring it.

It appears to me that you’re taking a page from your boss’s playbook by telling those of us who disagree with you to “sit down and shut up.”

It appears to me, Acting Commissioner Hespe, that you’re trying to bully those of us who do not see the value in your precious PARCC tests by punishing our children.

That’s low, Acting Commissioner. Really low. And do you know what? You don’t intimidate me. All you’ve done is piss me off. And Acting Commissioner, I’ll tell you this: pissing off parents — and voters — like me is probably not the way to ensure the long-term success of your policies. You were just a faceless bureaucrat. Now I want to get you fired. You deserve no less for attempting to bully parents by punishing our children.

(3) NJDOE “encourages” all chief school administrators to review district discipline and attendance policies “to ensure that they address situations that may arise during days that statewide assessments, such as PARCC, are being administered.”

I’m not certain what Acting Commissioner Hespe is getting at here, but I suspect his purpose may be to suggest that districts should implement attendance and discipline policies that will impose punitive consequences on children whose parents opt them out of these tests.

Is Acting Commissioner Hespe really suggesting that parents who keep their children home during testing are risking their children’s promotion to the next grade as a result of too many absences?

Is Acting Commissioner Hespe really suggesting that school districts should implement discipline policies that will impose punishments on children who refuse testing?

Would Acting Commissioner Hespe attempt to link state funding to local districts with the local districts’ willingness to implement punitive measures against those children whose parents refuse PARCC on their behalf?

The next step for me will be to see how my district interprets this guidance. Will it opt to provide alternate educational experiences and keep its promise that no academic decisions will be made based on this year’s test results?

But one thing seems certain. Acting Commissioner Hespe is scared. Really scared. He’s scared that the PARCC consortium is coming apart at the seams.  He’s scared that his precious testing regime is about to implode before it gets started. He’s scared that his tests aren’t going to generate enough data about enough kids to satiate the data monsters.

And he’s terrified of the growing opt out movement. So Hespe’s doubled down on PARCC. First he linked high school graduation to PARCC testing. Now he’s threatening parents and children who refuse PARCC. Defensiveness is rarely a sign of strength.

So as awful as this guidance is, it tells me that we’re winning. In a post-Citizens United world, there’s still some hope for grassroots activism and organizing. We are winning the war to do away with excessive and punitive standardized testing. And, of course, the whole education reform movement relies on its standardized testing foundation.

All the Acting Commissioner did with this policy was to galvanize me, for one, to fight harder. Who’s with me?

P.S.  For a terrific analysis of the Acting Commissioner’s magical thinking with respect to the supposed benefits of PARCC vs. the now apparently fatally flawed NJASK/HSPA (the portion of his letter I didn’t get around to analyzing), check out Peter Greene’s terrific piece over at Curmudgucation.  Will Hespe’s Magical PARCC promise my kids ponies?  What about unicorns?