Commentary: Latest teacher union plan for fewer annual tests flunks common sense

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This tweet represents NJEA’s campaign to end New Jersey public schools’ decades-long tradition of annual standardized tests and switch to “grade span testing,” or assessing student proficiency once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school. Sounds good, right? Less pressure on teachers and students, less investment in technology, less classroom interruption. “Just say no,” chief union evangelist Diane Ravitch urges, to “annual testing.” 

Currently New Jersey students take standardized tests every year from 3rd-8th grade and then again 11th grade. The teacher union backed plan would reduce the number of standardized test a student takes between K-12 from the current seven down to three. 

So, a thought experiment: what would happen if New Jersey adopted this plank of the anti-PARCC PAC and only tested students with standardized assessments three times during a student’s elementary and secondary education?

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For answers, let’s turn to two schools, Highland Park Middle School (Middlesex County) and Deptford High School. (Nota bene: Sonja Brookins Santelises of Education Trust used several N.J. schools, including these two, during a presentation on achievement gaps at a conference on Monday sponsored by the pro-standards and assessments group We Raise N.J.)

Highland Park Middle School looks wonderful on paper. According to the N.J. Department of Education’s School Performance Report, the school educates a diverse population comprised of 40 percent white, 20.7 percent Hispanic, 10.3 percent black, and 24.1 percent Asian students.  33.6 percent of students are economically-disadvantaged. On average, says the state,  Highland Park Middle School’s sixth-eighth graders “demonstrate high academic performance when compared to comparable schools in the state.“

Aha! the anti-testing cadre cries. Why burden teachers and students with standardized tests in such a high-achieving school?

Let’s dig a little deeper. Highland Park Middle School’s Performance Report itemizes each grade’s proficiency in language arts and math, and then disaggregates that data into categories of ethnicity, economics, special education, and English Language Learners. So let’s look at seventh grade proficiency in math, based on ASK test results (replaced this year by PARCC). The average looks pretty good: 73 percent scored either proficient or advanced proficient.  But those overall averages mask troubling achievement gaps that are visible only through by breaking down the data. While 88 percent of white students and 89 percent of Asian students demonstrated proficiency in math, 53 percent of economically-disadvantaged students and 46 percent of Hispanic students and were proficient. Among black students, only 33 percent were proficient. 

In other words, seventh-grade poor kids, Hispanic kids, and black kids in Highland Park suffer from achievement gaps in math of, respectively, 36, 42, and 55 points. This information would be unavailable without annual standardized testing.  

Now let’s look at another N.J. school that also educates a diverse enrollment but with more impoverished children than at Highland Park. At Monongahela Middle School, part of Deptford Public Schools, 60 percent of students are white, 23.4 percent are black, 11.1 percent are Hispanic, 4.6 percent are Asian, and 43.4 percent are economically-disadvantaged. How does this school do in serving a diverse community of learners?

Better. Seventh-graders who are minority and/or economically-disadvantaged demonstrate higher achievement in math than students in Highland Park. Specifically for 7th graders, 77 percent of white students, 59 percent of black students, 64 percent of Hispanic students, and 66 percent of economically-disadvantaged students achieve proficiency on the annual standardized math test. There’s still a gap, especially between white and black students – 19 points — but it’s far smaller than Highland Park’s 55 point gap.

Deptford High School does even better: 94.2 percent of white 11th and 12 graders and 97.5 percent of black 11th and 12th graders demonstrate proficiency in language arts. In, math, both subgroups demonstrate about 90 percent proficiency. (There’s no comparison available for Highland Park High School; for some reason the number of  minority and educationally-disadvantaged kids in the testing cohort is too low to qualify as a subgroup.)

This information, available only through annual standardized testing, is important for teachers, school districts, and the state, and generates all sorts of worthwhile questions. For example, what can Highland Park learn from Deptford? Is Deptford using a different math program or different sorts of supports for struggling students? Is the school day structured differently? How about professional development for teachers? Deptford spends slightly more per pupil than Highland Park — $15,952 a year compared to $15,066 — because Deptford is poorer than Highland Park and receives more state aid. Does that money make a difference?

Most importantly, this information is critical for families. Parents with the financial means to choose residency based on school district quality rely on meaningful measurements. So do parents who lack mobility but might avail themselves of options like charter schools, magnet schools, or interdistrict schools.  NJEA’s campaign against annual standardized testing would deprive parents and their children of these tools, and that’s an innumerate platform for an organization that defines its mission as promoting excellence in public education. 


Laura Waters is vice president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.


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