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.

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 ReadWorks.org.  

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. 

Google Docs Opt Out!

Oh what a difference a year makes!  We’ve got a new superintendent and a majority of our school board members have finally now been appointed by our pro-public education mayor.  

Today, emails and snail mails were sent to parents of all affected students in the district containing PARCC opt out procedures.  

The best part?  

OPT OUT VIA GOOGLE DOCS!

But also be sure to check out the letter to parents of students who refused testing last year.  It confirms that PARCC scores won’t be used for placement into any academic programs.  

Today is a happy day.

Opt Out: COMPLETE!

I love the reassurance that PARCC scores won’t be used in any way.

 

 

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:

image

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.

Color Me Apathetic

For those who haven’t heard, New Jersey finally announced its average PARCC scores today.   

This is my obligatory post-PARCC score announcement blog post.

Because I should write one.

I guess.

The PARCC scores are just as anti-climatic as I expected.

Boring.

Lame.

It is hard to muster outrage.

I’m tired today.

And annoyed.

I just don’t have it in me to react strongly.

And, frankly, these test scores don’t deserve much of a reaction.

Aggregate New Jersey test scores don’t tell us much at all.  

Frankly, the broken-out scores won’t tell us much either.  As Chris Tienken noted, we already know the results. They’re predicted by socio-economics and zip code.

Nevertheless, I’m sure the spin-game will begin.  Has begun. *SIGH*

I will laugh about one thing. Our high school students didn’t do nearly as badly in math as the high school students in Illinois. After all, 2%-3% of NJ students taking high school math courses (Algebra I, Algebra II, or Geometry) exceeded expectations, but 0% of Illinois high school math students exceeded expectations.  So IN YOUR FACE, Cubs fans. Go Mets!  

Ok, I don’t really care (about either the Mets/Cubs game or the Illinois/New Jersey high school math comparisons).  Sorry, Hubby. For your sake, I hope the Mets win.  For my Chicago cousins, I hope the Cubs win.

My energy is low tonight.

I looked at the sample tests.  I read about the sample tests.  I saw how these tests set out to trick students by intentionally making all of the distractor answers plausible or even correct, but varying in supposed degrees of correctness.  

The only way to ace these tests will be to prep, prep, prep for them all year long.

The tests will tell us nothing about real student achievement.

The tests will tell us nothing about which teachers are successful.

The tests will tell us nothing about which students were inspired to read a novel for the first time.

The tests will tell us nothing about which students were inspired to structure their persuasive writing more effectively after learning to master the logic necessary to write formal geometry proofs.

The tests will tell us nothing about which high school juniors sat up watching the presidential debates, out of the sense of responsibility that comes from knowing that they’d be voting for the first time.

The tests will tell us nothing about which students were inspired by a science project, or want to be astronauts because of Andy Weir’s book, The Martian.

So what is the point of getting worked up?

We all know what these tests measure.

They measure exactly what the politicians want them to measure.

They’ll be spun exactly how the media and the politicians feel like spinning them. And that spin will likely bear little to no relation to what is actually happening in our children’s classrooms and minds.

The only ways to know what is actually happening in our classrooms and our children’s minds is to ask our children, visit their classrooms, talk to their teachers, and review their homework.

The only way to hold our teachers and schools accountable is to involve ourselves in what is happening in our schools, and in the democratic process.  We need to ask questions, not review aggregate answers.  We need to visit classrooms, not sift through bureaucrats’ PowerPoint presentations.

And when there are problems we need to speak up, mobilize, and demand more of our schools.  That’s what I did today — in a case of unfortunate coincidence on top of mishap on top of unfortunate coincidence, today my first grader had a sub for a sub for a sub.  I kid you not.  But the schools that succeed are the schools in which the parents can mobilize parent pressure to address those issues, at least with a demand for explicit and coherent communication from the administration, and proposals for reasonable solutions to address the underlying personnel issues that got us to this place. Our kids will be okay, because in one form or another, I’ve heard from half the parents in the class today on how we are going to address this issue (and I’m not even the class parent).

If we want to know how our schools are doing, we can start by looking at how parents are able to react to issues like the one my daughter’s class is currently facing.  In communities where parents have resources and the democractic process is relatively intact, these issues will be addressed and the children will succeed.  

Of course, all of our children deserve communities where parents have the bandwidth and social capital to put pressure on school administrations. Test scores will never make that happen.  Instead, we should spend our energy on improving housing policy, inspiring diversity, and ensuring that all students have parents who are economically secure enough to be able to address what’s going on in their children’s classrooms. Those are the real fights. In a fair system, we wouldn’t have highly segregated public schools. We need to get rid of these tests so we can fight the real battles, like the battles against segregation and increasing inequality.

But just as our children’s educations are derailed each spring by testing, we parents and citizens and teachers and community members are also distracted by the testing, and the pernicious effects high-stakes tests have on our public schools.

Our children, our communities, our schools, and our teachers deserve more than an obsessive focus on these tests, tests, tests.  

Our children, our communities, our schools, and our teachers deserve parents whose attention and commitment to their schools isn’t undermined by concerns that test scores indicate that their schools are failing.

But the only way to stop that obsessive focus on testing is to refuse to test.

The only way to stop test-prep curriculum is to make it unnecessary.

So I will continue to refuse these tests.  

They tell us nothing about children, and nothing about teachers. 

But in the meantime, there is no point in getting worked up about the results, when the results are meaningless.

Opt out.   

And one day parent energy can be directed where it belongs, and not distracted by the testing sideshow created by our asinine national requirement that our children take annual high stakes standardized tests (and that teachers be fired and schools closed based on the outcomes of such tests).

Refuse.

Our kids deserve more than us spending our time on this nonsense.

We have better things to do. We have children to raise. We have a country to steer back onto the right track.

* * *

Lukewarm off the presses (sorry, it’s been a busy day, and really, who cares) check out the  NJ PARCC scores yourself:  

New Jersey’s Unsurprising PARCC Math Results, Grades 3-11

 

New Jersey’s Unsurprising PARCC English-Language Arts Results, Grades 3-11

 

Refuse Early So Teachers Can Teach

I know this is shocking elsewhere in the country, but here in New Jersey, we just finished our second week of school.  As the school year begins, I’m reflecting on what this year’s goals for my pro-public education advocacy should be.  I know this much: my first goal is to engage, encourage, and support parents to not just refuse standardized tests like PARCC, but to refuse early and supportively (rather than confrontationally).  In particular, I think we can best support our teachers, our children, and our schools by refusing early enough in the year to empower our children’s teachers to build curriculum and lesson plans around children’s needs rather than around the dictates of the testing industry.  

To that end, I encourage you to submit your refusal letters early, as this strategy will only work if there are mass refusals.  I sent mine yesterday, as one concrete action I could take to support the #ParentStrike movement across the country.  Here is my letter, which you should feel free to copy and modify to fit your needs:

Dear Teachers:

I am Sarah Blaine, the mother of _________ in Mrs. ________’s homeroom.  I write to let you know that in accordance with Montclair Board of Education policy regarding test refusals, _________ will not be taking the PARCC test in 2016.  I write now, at the beginning of the academic year, with the hope that enough of my fellow parents will do the same so that you, my child’s teachers, will hopefully not feel constrained to teach to the PARCC or any other standardized test.  Instead, my hope is that a high number of early refusals will allow you to feel free to use your professional judgment to provide our children with the most developmentally appropriate and engaging lessons you have the power to create, instead of wasting time preparing for educationally irrelevant state-mandated tests.  

__________ is thrilled so far with both of you, and I look forward to a constructive, engaging, and challenging school year for her.  Please know that I am always open to conversation and suggestions as to how to best support __________’s learning both inside and outside of the classroom. Our family has not made this decision to refuse testing lightly, but rather as an attempt to express our support for a public education system in which teachers will once again be treated as the knowledgeable professionals we know that they are (I am a former public school teacher myself, and earned my M.A.T. before I began teaching in a rural community).

I am, of course, happy to speak with you further about this issue, but I trust that my wishes for ____________ will be respected, and that she will of course be, in accordance with district policy, provided with non-punitive alternatives.

Best regards,

 Sarah Blaine

Let our teachers focus on REAL education

Amazing graphic by Beth O’Donnell-Fisher


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…

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.

Guest Voices: Dr. Colleen Daly Martinez

The letter below is by Dr. Colleen Daly Martinez. Dr. Martinez holds a Ph.D in Social Work from Rutgers University. I first encountered her as a fellow local education advocate working to support our public schools; in the months since, we have become friends. She wrote this letter to Senator Teresa Ruiz, Chair of the New Jersey Senate’s Education Committee, and copied it to the members of the Senate Education Committee along with other local, state, and federal lawmakers, as noted below.

One Clarification: It is true that a third-grade theater class’s production was originally canceled due to PARCC.  See this excerpt from an email to parents of the affected children regarding this decision:

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However, due to the efforts of parents to alert the administration that the decision to cancel was unacceptable, our responsive PTA and administration were able to work together to ensure that the third-grade theater class’s short play was rescheduled.  See below:

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Thank you to Georgette Gilmore for pointing out via Twitter that this needed to be clarified.  The original letter as sent by Dr. Martinez to Senator Ruiz, et al. remains below.

 

March 15, 2015

Dear Senator Ruiz, and Senate Education Committee Members,

I have written to you before to express my concern about education reform and its impact on our NJ public schools, but I feel compelled to reach out again after listening to Education Commissioner Hespe’s testimony to you on Thursday, March 12.

I will start by telling you about who I am, so that you understand my perspective and experience. I’ll then share with you my observations of the impact of education reform, and then close with some recommendations and requests. I am happy to meet with you at any time and venue to further this discussion, and I appreciate your time, service, and representation.

I am a NJ Licensed Clinical Social Worker and I hold a PhD in Social Work which I earned at Rutgers University. I have more than 20 years of clinical social work experience with children and their families. I have worked with upper and middle class families, as well as with very poor urban and rural families in four counties across Northern New Jersey. I teach Master’s Degree students at a Research I University, and I maintain a private practice where I provide consultation and supervision to mental health professionals. I also provide related services to special education students in a poor urban school district.

Working in classrooms on a regular basis, I see very clear signs that education reform is already harming our most vulnerable students. First, the Common Core State Standards set goals and timeframes for when children should achieve certain academic goals, and place responsibility on the classroom teacher for student achievement of these goals. Consider a first grade standard: “CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.1.5 Explain major differences between books that tell stories and books that give information, drawing on a wide reading of a range of text types.” In some first grade classrooms we have children with developmental and medical challenges and communication and learning disabilities. Some special education students in first grade are nonverbal, literally unable to speak their own names. Some are visually impaired and learning to use assistive devices to safely navigate their expanding world. Others have serious emotional and behavioral challenges which require the intervention and support of mental health professionals and behaviorists. However, the Common Core standards and new teacher evaluation requirements demand that teachers, regardless of who their students are and what challenges they bring with them, prioritize the standards. Whether a first grade teacher has a group of 25 well fed, well rested students with no significant learning challenges, or a teacher has a group of 30 students, all poor, some hungry, and some with serious behavioral or learning challenges, they must both be working on this goal for their students: “Explain major differences between books that tell stories and books that give information, drawing on a wide reading of a range of text type.” Not only must both teachers be working toward this goal with their students, but their job performance evaluations will be based upon how well their students demonstrate mastery of this goal on the PARCC test. I hope that you can see why this system of ‘accountability’ is unjust.
To make the assumption that children throughout the country, or even throughout New Jersey or Essex County, have the same educational opportunities, despite who they are and where they live, is absolutely false. What I have witnessed for the past four years is that what is now being referred to as “educational reform” is systematically causing harm to those who are most in need and most vulnerable. Many reformers say that a major problem with our educational system is that we don’t expect enough of poor children, or children with disabilities, and therefore these students underperform. Reformers’ rationale is that if we raise standards, and expect more from underperforming students, they will rise to the challenge. This assertion is missing a vital piece, however. The piece that is missing is WHY these students are underperforming. Researchers consistently find that having learning disabilities and living in poverty places more challenges on these children in their pursuit of academic achievement. What would be beneficial to helping these students achieve would be to provide resources where they are needed such as into specialized training for educators and special educators regarding working with students with disabilities; into school buildings to decrease class size; and into medical and social services to address some of the challenges that our students in poverty face. Raising academic standards when students already have challenges performing is similar to telling a wheelchair user that we are going to take away ramps and elevators, because they will be better off without them. This idea makes no sense. Reformers would have us think that children with very real challenges can somehow do better academically if we only believe that it is possible. This idea also makes no sense, in the absence of resources to help them achieve.

Parents are now seeing that their children’s needs for remediation, review, reteaching, and focusing on foundational skills are being ignored because of the pressure to keep up with the standards. Teachers, whether in middle class districts with a classroom of regular education students, or in special education classrooms in poor districts, are accountable for variables that are out of their control. With the addition of PARCC testing as another measure of accountability for teachers and schools, developmentally delayed children are spending more time on computers than they are on social skills or on fine and gross motor skills. They thereby miss out on important developmental support which would eventually lead to healthier, well-balanced individuals. Reformers would say that the enhanced pressure on teachers is good for academic achievement. People who understand what is happening on the individual, classroom, building, and district level see that genuine, meaningful learning is being replaced by PARCC preparation. But this is true only in the poorest buildings and districts. More diverse, middle class, and upper middle class schools are largely spared because statistically and historically their students tend to do better on standardized tests. Subsequently, the ‘haves’ receive education to improve their lives, while the ‘have nots’ receive training to improve their PARCC scores. Over the long term, if these systems of holding teachers accountable for social inequity and student’s learning disabilities remain in place, I think we should expect a trend of highly-qualified and experienced teachers moving away from working in poor districts and away from special education. This, of course, will only cause more harm to students who are most in need.

Commissioner Hespe would have us believe that PARCC results will be a learning tool. Instruction and remediation will be targeted to address specific areas where students are underperforming so that we can ensure that they are on the course toward being college and career ready. The problem with that justification for PARCC is that educators and administrators can already identify which students are in need of remediation. Class grades and GPA are indicators that are already readily available. Teachers, administrators and parents are excellent reporters of where students are falling behind and even failing. They can also be excellent reporters of where remediation is needed. However, remediation often cannot be provided because there aren’t sufficient resources to do so. Rather than spend huge amounts of money verifying what we already know, why not spend our resources meeting the needs of students and schools? The answer to that question is rather grim. Why do we put all of these tax dollars into an experimental assessment tool? Because there is tremendous opportunity to direct taxpayer dollars into the wallets of education reform companies. As Commissioner Hespe pointed out, it is impossible to compute the actual amount of dollars spent by each district on PARCC preparation, but we do know that NJ’s contract with Pearson alone is worth more than one hundred million dollars. Many informed educators postulate that when PARCC results do come back, Pearson will be ready to sell our districts remedial products.

I want to further illustrate how some students are suffering more than others under these reform efforts. The students I work with in their school setting, some of whom have just turned three years old, are often English language learners. Most are eligible for free lunch. Their parents often are not able to read school notices that are sent home in English, and their parents often work more than one job to support their families. They usually do not have their own cars. Because of their parents’ work schedules, these students are often at school for before school care and after school care. Their school facilities often lack developmentally appropriate, safe recreation equipment. Therefore, some three year old children spend more than 9 hours a day at school, with little to no opportunity to run, tumble and climb. Optimistically assuming that these youngsters get the recommended 12 hours of sleep at night, their schedule might allow for three waking hours with their parents each day. I have no doubt that many of these families find it hard to provide enriching activities for their children’s growth and development during these three hours, and during whatever time they are not working on weekends.

The school experiences of middle class children are often strikingly different. I’ll use my daughter as an example. Because her father and I have the benefit of relatively good jobs, our schedules allow for a parent to be home with her when she is not at school. Each morning I bring her to school at 9, and I pick her up again at 3:30. She has hours of time to do homework, play, and enjoy our company every evening. She has always lived in the same home, and has never had to go hungry, or worry about her own safety. She is lucky, in that her basic needs are met; that we have the time and resources to provide her with additional support at home to help her achieve the academic goals set forth in the Common Core standards; and that we can provide her with enriching activities to help her to be a happy, well-rounded person.

Even with all of the benefits of her relatively comfortable life, her school experience has been stressful. Starting in kindergarten fours year ago, my daughter’s public school career has always been shaped by the Common Core standards. Despite being a typically developing child with no health or behavioral issues, she was flagged in kindergarten because she was not progressing adequately toward reading. For three years — until this school year — she was considered ‘below grade level’ in her reading ability. Thankfully, my husband and I are well-informed about child development and education, as well as about educational systems in other countries. We did not focus on her perceived ‘delay’ because we were aware that in many high-performing countries children are not even expected to begin developing reading skills until they are seven. We were also familiar with the research that points to the potential harm caused by pushing children to develop reading skills before they are developmentally ready. This harm includes feelings of inadequacy and an aversion to reading. I consider our daughter lucky that we have been able to spare her from the potential harm of the Common Core standards.

The issue of resources is a primary reason why I am an advocate for our public schools and against PARCC. During this school year I have seen many schools, classrooms, and children suffer because of flawed use of resources. In a school in an urban district, a bathroom has caution tape up, surrounding a broken sink and loose floor tiles. The principal does not have the funds to have the bathroom fixed, and is dismayed because she was forced to spend $25,000 of her budget on Chrome Books in preparation for PARCC. In another school the teachers bring in their own bottles of hand soap for their students’ use, and there are no balls, jump ropes, chalk or other play materials in the parking lot (where children play because the gymnasium is also the cafeteria). Yet carts of laptops sit under lock and key in preparation for PARCC testing. In my daughter’s school, theater productions are canceled, the library is closed for weeks on end, and substitute teachers are covering classes while teachers are proctoring the PARCC test. Unfunded state mandates have forced our schools to stop spending on what is needed, so they can meet the demands of the state. Our Montclair 2015-2016 budget proposal currently calls for increasing taxes, cutting more than 50 classroom level staff, and adding more spending for technology. This makes no sense!

Commissioner Hespe testified to you that it would not be possible to compute the amount of money that districts have spent in preparing for PARCC. To me, that is quite concerning, but I believe that the worst waste of resources is the time that our students and teachers are spending in school this year NOT learning. My daughter’s class spent nine sessions this school year in the computer lab, learning how to use Pearson’s PARCC tools. They have taken numerous practice tests, not for the students’ benefit, but to check that the school’s internet and computer capacity could handle the actual PARCC administration. They have had countless days of being in class with substitute teachers who do not instruct, but simply supervise the students while their regular teachers have training to administer PARCC. The teachers have not been able to attend enriching and inspiring continuing education workshops because their professional development hours have been spent on PARCC preparation.

Many educators would say, if asked, that the time and money that has been spent thus far on preparation for the PARCC test could absolutely have been put to better use addressing student needs that they were already aware of. Unfortunately, Commissioner Hespe and others that believe in this education reform movement would have you believe that educators have a problem with PARCC testing because they actually have a problem with accountability. Many test advocates say that teachers don’t like the test because it will show that their teaching is ineffective, and that PARCC puts pressure on teachers to perform given that PARCC scores will be tied to teachers’ performance evaluations. Advocates for public education, including educators and others who are familiar with educational research and practice say that it is unfair to hold teachers accountable for the reasons that students perform poorly since many of these include learning disabilities, poverty, and other issues that are beyond individual teachers’ control. If we truly want to improve academic outcomes, we need to put resources and accountability in the right places, and not into tools that will just continue to measure and accentuate the achievement gap.

My biggest concern is about the long term impact on public education for poor children and children with special needs. Education reform executives, politicians, and education policy makers often send their children to private schools, where Common Core standards and high stakes testing are not used. Children who attend such private schools will continue to have the enriching educational experiences that they can afford. Our less privileged and more vulnerable students however, will suffer. Since PARCC’s focus is only on English language arts and math, and resources are scarce, many schools are cutting recreation, sports, science, music, drama, second language, and fine arts offerings. Students who struggle academically often find that these activities are the ones that make school fun, inspiring, and something to look forward to. We should also remember that not everyone is meant to be a business executive or a mathematician. As a society, we need people who are creative, inspired, out-of-the-box thinkers. By degrading the quality of our public schools and not offering equal opportunity for disadvantaged people, we will only enhance the achievement gap.

Commissioner Hespe seemed determined to convince you in his testimony last week that the groundswell of opposition to PARCC is due to parents being uninformed. Please know that we parents are also professionals. We are business owners, corporate managers, teachers, artists, librarians, social workers, medical professionals, researchers, statisticians, and lawyers — as well as parents. We work our full-time jobs, care for our families, and have taken on our part-time roles as well informed social activists because we feel that our voices continue to be ignored and dismissed by those we have elected. Please allow our voices to be just as powerful as those alleging that they speak for us.

As members of the Senate Education Committee, I know that you have our students’ and taxpayers’ best interests in mind. In addition to reading my letter, which I am so grateful that you have done, I am asking for your support. Please make a conscious effort to protect our public schools. Please make efforts to halt and roll back unfunded state mandates, including standards and expectations that set special needs students up to fail as well as the mandates that link test scores to teacher evaluations. Please make efforts to stop holding teachers accountable for variables that are not under their control. Please ensure that we, as parents, maintain our right to refuse participation in standardized testing for our children. Please work toward returning local control of schools to those taxpayers who are most invested in their success. Please do not allow the interests of corporate education reformers to be more important than the needs of our children. Please listen to parents, educators and administrators. Please put our public school students’ needs first.

Again, I am thankful for the time that you have given to hear my concerns. Please do not hesitate to contact me at any time to continue this conversation.

Respectfully,

Dr. Colleen Daly Martinez

Copy:
Administrators, Hillside Elementary School
Members, Montclair Board of Education
Montclair Mayor Robert Jackson
Senator Steve Sweeney
Senator Cory Booker
Senator Robert Menendez
Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan
Congressman Donald Payne
Members, Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in New Jersey
Governor Chris Christie