Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Acts of Desperation in the Name of Education

This morning I received an email from Carolee Adams, President of the New Jersey Eagle Forum. In her email, she described her experience at a local Board of Education meeting last night. It's not often that you walk into the auditorium and find it completely packed with students. When it is, there are usually awards being handed out. But not last night. 

Last night, those students were there on a public policy assignment. Cool, right? Well, maybe not so much. The Superintendent addressed the students, a plea to have them take the PARCC exams. Apparently, there will be a letter, with the permission of the BOE, sent home to parents also encouraging them to let their children take the PARCC. The reason for the pleas is to protect the high rankings of the high schools in the district. 

I know this Superintendent. He is my neighbor and my daughter's out of district placement is in one of his schools. I have a lot of respect for this man. There is a good reason why his schools are ranked so high (besides the stupid test scores). His staff - from the building principals to the janitorial staff - are fantastic. You could not ask for a better high school environment for your teenager. You could not ask for a more thoughtful and dedicated teaching staff. That is worth more than any standardized test score. I know he knows this. 

I'm less than thrilled at his approach, though, for a couple of reasons. First, don't put our kids in the middle like that. Having them attend a BOE meeting as part of an assignment is a great idea. Ambushing them with a guilt talk about the district losing its ranking because of a single, still not validated test based on a less difficult set of standards than New Jersey used to have, is not a great idea.

Secondly, nothing that I am aware of, has changed in the teaching philosophy of this district. Nothing has changed in the level of teacher quality, student engagement, or student performance - that is, their ability to actually demonstrate what they've learned, not based on a standardized test. Please, don't ever put the weight of district rankings on the heads our kids and their test scores. It's not fair to them. They have enough pressure.

So why would the Superintendent do such a thing? Well, presumably, this is part of a Corrective Action Plan (CAP). I have asked to see the CAP and am hoping it will be shared today. (I waited until after 6pm to publish, and haven't heard back. I will follow up when I see it.)

A CAP, in this case, is a plan districts must come up with to show how they will increase test participation rates. 

As NJDOE is following through with its promise to issue CAPs to districts who did not meet the 95% participation rate last school year, we have seen all kinds of crazy responses around the state. Parents are being told: 

  • Money will be withheld from the district if their kids don't take the test (it won't, NJ has a law preventing that from happening: "Notwithstanding the provisions of N.J.S.18A:55-2, or any other law, rule, or regulation to the contrary, the commissioner shall not direct the State treasurer to withhold funds payable by the State to a school district based on the participation rate on any State assessment of the school district's students.")
  • Graduation - both from high school and from lower grades - will be in jeopardy (not so, there are currently many paths to high school graduation, read here, here, and here
  • Placement into advanced classes will be barred (even NJDOE does not recommend using one variable to make or break a placement)
  • A visit from the NJ Chamber of Commerce to scare parents into letting their kids take the test, read about that particular inanity here (after complaints, she appears to have toned down the Armageddon-like speech, but not the actual presentation) 
  • And, my personal favorite, that parents cannot "opt out/refuse" the tests for their children this year (of course they can, they aren't asking for permission) 

I'm obviously thrilled my daughter's Superintendent did NOT suggest any of those things. He did, however, clearly demonstrate one of many issues with an education system that is at the mercy of high stakes standardized test scores - the ranking and sorting of students and their schools. Education is not a competition, in spite of what the USDOE, NJDOE, and myriad business groups would have us believe. 

Once again, our kids deserve better than this. 

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