Special NJPSA Update: The State of Assessment in NJ – (This Week!)

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By Debra Bradley, Esq.

October 10, 2019

This special alert is part of NJPSA’s effort to keep our members informed and engaged on the latest news and policy developments in education.

On October 2, 2019, the State Board of Education held a tumultuous meeting where the pendulum swung from the positive announcement and celebration of Kimberly Dickstein as the 2019-2020 Teacher of the Year, to the tabling of the Department of Education’s (NJDOE) most recent proposal to amend the standards and assessment code to finally stabilize New Jersey’s state assessment policy. It has been a long and winding road that culminated in the events and wide-ranging sentiments expressed at this State Board meeting.

Background – The Assessment Roller Coaster

The State Board in 2018

Last August, the NJDOE first proposed significant changes to the Standards and Assessment code, N.J.A.C. 6A:8, after months of public outreach on the issue of assessment. The initial proposal was to maintain testing in grades 3 through 8 utilizing the newly-renamed New Jersey State Learning Assessments (NJSLA), a move away from New Jersey’s former reliance on the PARCC assessments. At the high school level, NJDOE proposed to continue state standardized assessments in ELA 10 and Algebra I in order to maintain the existing level of proficiency for high school graduation and reduce state assessment testing time for high school students. This initial proposal would have eliminated end-of-course assessments in ELA 9, 11, Geometry and Algebra II and maintained the menu of options (alternate assessments and portfolio) following remediation and retake opportunities. This proposal was intended to be an interim step as New Jersey transitioned to a new state system of assessment, while maintaining compliance with federal law.

In response to extensive public testimony (including that of NJPSA) and voiced legislative concerns, a compromise high school assessment proposal was reached in September 2018 and approved at proposal level at the October 3, 2018 State Board meeting which proposed to:

  • test in both ELA and Mathematics in grades 9 and 10 (corresponding end-of-course math) and one assessment in science during the high school years,

  • maintain the high school graduation proficiency levels of ELA 10 and Algebra I,

  • continue the menu of options for graduation (substitute competency standardized assessment options and portfolio appeal) with certain access prerequisites,

  • continue to require districts to provide remediation, support and opportunities for retakes of the state assessment requirements for graduation;

  • clarify assessment and accommodation requirements for special needs and ELL students,

  • eliminate testing in ELA 11 and end-of-course math in grade 11.

This compromise proposal was posted in the NJ Register for further public comment.

The New Year’s Eve Surprise

This hard-won compromise was thrown to the wayside on December 31, 2018, when the Appellate Division of the NJ Superior Court issued a decision finding that certain regulations concerning high school graduation requirements did not comply with existing state statute (N.J.S.A. 18A:7C-7) requiring a statewide graduation test in English and Mathematics in the eleventh grade. The Court provided a 30-day stay of its judgment to permit the NJDOE to seek further review and avoid disruption in the ongoing statewide administration of proficiency exams. This decision led to major uncertainty for students and schools, particularly students in the Classes of 2019, 2020 and 2021.

In March 2019, the parties entered a first Consent Order that preserved the current menu of options for students to demonstrate their proficiency levels for high school graduation for the Classes of 2019 and 2020 only. This settled the immediate issue of graduation requirements and options for juniors and seniors, but failed to change the 11th grade testing statute or address the fair testing needs of sophomores, freshmen and eight grade students, and the need to move toward stability and key statewide assessment goals.

The Legislature Intervenes

In response, Senator Teresa Ruiz and Assemblywoman Pam Lampitt introduced legislation, S-3381 (Ruiz)/A-4957 (Lampitt) as a stop-gap measure to modify the existing 11th grade testing statute. The bill, which has passed the Senate, proposes to:

  • eliminate the statutory language requiring a specific 11th grade test,

  • appropriately refers the assessment issue to the Department of Education and State Board regulatory process and

  • contains provisions consistent with the Consent Order to effectively “grandfather” current juniors and seniors to the current graduation standards.

NJPSA worked in support of this legislation in both houses but sought the extension of the grandfathering provisions to incoming eight graders (Class of 2023) freshmen (Class of 2022) and sophomores (Class of 2021). Due to a public outcry from some parent groups and the NJEA to this legislation, the bill has been stalled in the Assembly, but theoretically could be considered in the lame- duck session of the Legislature after the November elections.

This stalemate necessitated another Consent Order to incorporate the Classes of 2021 and 2022 into the terms of the existing Consent Order in June 2019.

School Year 2019-2020 – So Where Are We Now?

As the 2019-20 school year gets underway, the NJDOE continues to meet with stakeholders seeking consensus on the future of state assessment for high school students. To date, there is no evident consensus approach, at least not within the State Board of Education whose action is required to resolve the outstanding Standards and Assessment Code issues.

If the State Board of Education fails to act by noon on November 6, 2019, the pending code proposal will expire. What does that mean? Potentially, it means the NJDOE will have to develop a new standards and assessment code proposal and start the administrative process all over again. This process can last from six months to a year. In the alternative, the NJDOE could move forward based upon the existing state statutes which require the implementation of an 11th grade graduation test beginning with current ninth grade students (Class of 2023) and the use of a non-standardized assessment option (the portfolio appeal process), absent new code or a change in the legislation. In the latter scenario, the menu of substitute competency tests may no longer be an option for high school students to demonstrate proficiency.

The NJDOE’s Most Recent Proposal (Subject to Change!)

At the September State Board meeting, NJDOE staff presented the results of the spring 2019 assessments and the Department’s intended direction for assessment moving forward in our current legal and educational context. This direction included the development of an 11th grade graduation test, as required by state law and court decision, beginning with the Classes of 2023-25 with continued efforts to work toward a next generation of assessments. The Department also discussed NJSLA Science cut scores and an initiative that NJPSA has played a major leadership role in – the development of instructional units in ELA and Math. These units unpack our state learning standards and contain statewide learning objectives aligned to standards in each grade to build professional capacity to deliver a high-quality curriculum in all schools. NJPSA has long supported the goal of teaching to equity through high quality curricula aligned to state standards.

Following this meeting, the NJDOE called together a broad group of stakeholders, including NJPSA, to present its plan for “substantial changes” to the pending Standards and Assessment code in light of the court decision, current political dynamics and the existing framework of statutes. This proposal, presented publicly at the October 2 State Board Meeting, contains the following “substantial changes” to last year’s code proposal:

In NJPSA’s view, this 2019 proposal sought to track the consensus agreement that was reached last fall within current legal parameters. Essentially, the proposal maintains the consensus of two grades of testing in ELA and Math at the high school level which would significantly reduce the amount of state standardized testing required. It maintains the current graduation proficiency levels of ELA 10 and Algebra I, although the assessment would be given in the fall of 11th grade, not the choice most educators would make absent the state statute and court decision. The proposal also maintains multiple pathways for students to demonstrate proficiency including the use of substitute competency assessments and the statutorily-based portfolio appeal process. For these reasons, and the need to provide testing fairness and certainty to our students and educators in high school, the collective associations representing principals (NJPSA), superintendents (NJASA, GSCS), boards of education (NJSBA, GSCS), parents (NJPTA), school business officials (NJASBO), and teachers (NJEA) submitted a common statement in support of these changes.

At the October meeting, State Board members raised numerous questions and concerns about the proposal, including issues about the potential loss of statewide data on Geometry, the reduction in testing, the potential impact on achievement gaps, the continued use of substitute competency tests, and the college and career readiness of our students. The Board decided not to act on the proposal that day, but instead call a special meeting, before the November 6 code expiration date to continue the discussion and potentially take a vote. Absent State Board action, the Commissioner may have independent authority to act on this issue.

How Can You Engage?

NJPSA is awaiting notice of the next State Board meeting and will keep you advised of all developments.

It will be important for school leaders to weigh in with your perspective both to NJPSA to inform our future positions/actions and to the State Board of Education. Here is what you can do!

  1.  If the State Board votes to move the Notice of Substantial Change forward before noon on November 6th, the code proposal will be published in the NJ Register for a 60-day public comment period. Public comments will be accepted only on the amendments proposed in the published notice, which could be the details contained in the above chart or an amended proposal that we have not yet seen. NJPSA will immediately share any new proposals that are posted for public comment.

  1. Help NJPSA stay informed of your views and the issues from the field. We have established a Critical Issues Committee focused on assessment which will meet throughout this school year to review the research, best practices, implementation issues and current assessment proposals in depth to develop NJPSA’s policy response. Join us by emailing Stacy Barksdale Jones, sbarksdale@njpsa.org to express your interest. Our first organizational meeting will take place just before our Fall Conference on Wednesday, October 16th, at the Ocean Place in Long Branch at 2:00 pm. If you cannot join us for this meeting, please sign up anyway as we will continue to meet in the next few months and we need to hear your voice!

The State Board of Education will hold a special meeting on Monday, October 21, 2019, to consider and take action on the Notice of Substantial Changes pertaining to Chapter 8 Standards and Assessment. The public is invited to attend this meeting, which will be held at 100 River View Executive Plaza, Trenton, NJ, and will begin at 9 am.

Please, contact Debra Bradley or Jennifer Lamon in Government Relations for more information and to share your thoughts on this important issue at dbradley@njpsa.org or jlamon@njpsa.org.