On Tuesday morning the New Jersey School Choice and Education Reform Alliance (NJSCERA) held a statewide conference on the Common Core Standards Initiative, the set of learning goals that outline what students should learn in each grade during math and language arts classes.
Most of the legislators, lobbyists, and educators — not a naturally harmonious group in the Garden State — agreed on two points: one, the grade-level standards meaningfully raise the bar for N.J.’s students and, two, N.J.’s implementation of these standards and the aligned assessments has been bumpy and impeded by misinformation.
The livestream of the conference at Middlesex Community College is available.
According to the participants, it’s not the standards themselves that are causing all the consternation. (One exception: Bob Bowdon, director of the pro-reform movie “The Cartel,” declared that the standards were “weak,” especially the math standards that cap out at Algebra 2, and argued that state-imposed standards discouraged school-level innovation) But every other panelist and presenter — Former Gov. Tom Kean, NJ School Boards Association’s Vincent De Lucia, Senate President Steve Sweeney, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, N.J. Education Commissioner David Hespe, Fordham Foundation President Mike Petrelli, N.J. Principal and Supervisors Association Director Patricia Wright, NJEA Associate Director Amy Fratz, among others — praised the Common Core’s value. Many noted that N.J. has a long tradition of upgrading state standards, and this new set of guidelines is simply the next stage. Mrs. Wright explained, “it’s always been a continuous improvement process.”
But implementation threatens N.J.’s efforts to upgrade the ability of its high school graduates to succeed in college and careers. For example, De Lucia of NJSBA noted the appearance of a South Jersey Tea Party group, rebranded the “Faith & Freedom Coalition of New Jersey,” that links the Common Core to Adolph Hitler. Declan O’Scanlon, Assembly Republican Budget Officer, described the “strange bedfellows” nature of Common Core-haters, adding that that there is “no natural constituency” for raising expectations for students. There are opponents who fear that more ambitious standards could undermine N.J.’s reputation of great schools, and those who resent governmental intrusion into local matters, and those who fear an onslaught of testing on students and teachers.
Comm. Hespe said that when he was President of Burlington Community College, he knew that “we’re failing our students” because “two-thirds of the students arrived on campuses [with high school degrees] and couldn’t do the work.” NJSBA’s De Lucia added that shared standards were the “only way to insure that every child, regardless of zip code, has access.”
More problematic, of course, are the standardized assessments that are aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Two national consortia — Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter, Balanced — have produced these computer-based tests that measure student proficiency of the Core, and much of the state uproar swirls around N.J.’s plan to use the new PARCC tests this spring.
Participants asked, “can a state have legitimate course objectives without assessments aligned to those objectives? And, is New Jersey prepared to implement the PARCC assessments right now?
For most of the panelists, the answer to the first question is “no.” Course objectives alone lack reliability, credibility, and accountability. It’s the second question — the roll-out of PARCC — that provoked the most dissension. Comm. Hespe: “Standards are meaningless if you don’t measure progress.”
NJEA’s Amy Fratz said, “teachers were fine with the [Common Core] standards. They started complaining when they added the assessments.” She asked, “where’s the technology?” Not all schools are computer-ready for the tests. “Where’s the money?” What about the D.O.E.’s recent announcement that a passing grade on PARCC or another standardized test (S.A.T., A.C.T.) would be a high school graduation requirement? (Mike Petrelli described that requirement as “politically suicidal,” although reasonable if used to determine if students are ready for college-level work.) Lack of preparation is causing “angst,” especially among special education teachers and those who teach English Language Learners. Are their students (and themselves) being set up for failure?
Sen. Sweeney, however, praised the N.J. Legislature’s compromise this summer in response to that angst. An NJEA-backed and NJSBA-opposed bill had been circulating that would delay the infusion of PARCC test results into teacher evaluations for two years. Gov. Christie issued an Executive Order — that grand compromise — that maintained the initial PARCC testing schedule but delayed by one year the use of the results in evaluating teachers and lessened the impact of test results. Christie also promised to appoint a task force to study state testing in general. (A report is due in December but the task force hasn’t been appointed yet.)
The Senate President urged patience and commitment. “People are rushing to choose sides,” he said, “but it’s not worth throwing [this opportunity for improvement] away. Teachers and superintendents don’t want to throw it away. We want to get this right.”
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.