Monday, April 4, 2016

New Jersey State Board of Education Gets It Very Wrong

The February 10, 2016 NJ State Board of Ed meeting was its usual surreal experience and it was one of the rare times when open public testimony is permitted. As the school experiences of our kids get more and more narrowed, parents are finally showing up in number to speak out against what is happening in their districts and to weigh in on the crazy influence testing has on our schools. 

I regularly provide testimony to the NJ State BOE, to NJ Senate and Assembly Education Committees, and I've even schlepped down to the US Department of Education in Washington DC. I expect that my testimony (anyone's testimony) is listened to fairly and when appropriate, commented on fairly. Here is the link to a summary of testimony provided in February to the NJ State BOE, along with a response from them. I expected it to reflect what I actually said.

I'm more than a little horrified that it does not. I provided two testimonies -- one for myself and one from Save Our Schools NJ (SOSNJ). Mine was completely ignored, and it appears the NJ State BOE summary and response to SOSNJ was too: 
COMMENT: The commenter asked for details on the current graduation requirements and how they differ from the proposed changes. (A)
RESPONSE: Under the former graduation requirements, a student had three opportunities to demonstrate graduation competencies under the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA). If a student was unable to pass all portions of the HSPA, he or she then would take targeted portions of the Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA). Finally, a student who was unable to demonstrate graduation proficiencies through both the HSPA and the AHSA could use the portfolio appeals process. Although the Department is proposing to transition form the HSPA to end-of-course PARCC assessments, and the AHSA to substitute competency tests, the statutory requirement to demonstrate graduation competency through a standardized assessment is maintained, along with the provision of an alternative way to demonstrate proficiency.  
However, nowhere in the SOSNJ testimony is that question asked. Here is the full text: 
February 10, 2016
 Save Our Schools NJ, a 30,000 member grassroots, non-partisan, pro-public education organization strongly opposes the New Jersey Department of Education’s proposed graduation requirements. In short, the proposed regulations make passing two PARCC tests a graduation requirement, and eliminate the alternative high school assessment.  Save Our Schools NJ does not support using the unvalidated PARCC tests for graduation or any other important decisions affecting students, teachers, and schools.  Furthermore, eliminating the alternative assessment will undoubtedly increase the drop-out rate, disproportionately affect certain communities, and must be reconsidered.

The proposed regulations appear to eliminate the right of parents to refuse PARCC by requiring all students to sit for all PARCC exams in order to receive a diploma. Parents in New Jersey have always refused standardized tests, and federal law supports parents’ right to refuse. The State Board should reject this proposal. 

Currently, New Jersey is one of just 13 states that requires exit exams for public school students. In rejecting exit exams, a large majority of states recognize that high school performance is a better indicator of college and career readiness than a standardized test. Rather than revealing new information about the performance of New Jersey’s students, the results of last year’s PARCC exams confirm what we already knew—performance on standardized tests is highly correlated to a family’s and community’s wealth. The new federal ESSA law does not require a high school exit test.  And it requires just one test in ELA and math in high school.  Given all of this, why does New Jersey need three times as many tests in high school?

The Department claims that a test taken on a computer better measures a student’s abilities as compared to a pencil and paper “bubble” test and commenced an initiative to force school districts to administer the test online, ignoring warnings about how students with little or no experience with computers would fare. The DOE touted its ‘best in the nation’ number of students who took PARCC on a computer. Yet, last week, PARCC officials acknowledged discrepancies in scores across different formats. PARCCs Chief of Assessment Jeffrey Nellhaus said “There is some evidence that, in part, the score differences we’re seeing may be explained by students’ familiarity with the computer-delivery system.” According to EdWeek, "The advantage for paper-and-pencil test-takers appears to be substantial, based on independent analyses conducted by one prominent PARCC state and a high-profile school district that administered the exams."  This serious matter further calls into question the validity of PARCC results and their use as a requirement for graduation.

Save Our Schools NJ supports assessing skills and knowledge as a component of high-quality education using tools that are reliable, valid, and appropriate to the educator's need. We do not support the use of high stakes standardized testing for graduation, student placement, or teacher evaluation.
Save Our Schools NJ urges the State Board of Education and the Department of Education to explore alternatives to high stakes standardized testing. Rather than enrich the coffers of the edu-tech industry, please consider assessments that support the type of instruction NJ students and educators need and deserve.

Submitted by Julie Borst, Organizer, Save Our Schools NJ
I will leave you with the full text of my testimony -- which I was not allowed to finish. I was made to provide both within a strict 5-minute slot, even though there were many people who did not show up and there would have been plenty of time for the few people in the room to speak. Later on I learned that people were allowed extra time in the other rooms. (It's not unusual to for them to split people up and have 1 or 2 Board members listen to testimony in each room.) It is not even addressed. Pretty scary since this is really the crux of the issue. We have been sold the idea that we need high standards above all else. What we were given are not "higher" than the old standards. The testing, and the narrowing of curriculum for the purpose of doing well on a test that is based on the new and inferior standards is big problem. 

10 February 2016 NJ State Board of Education
Drs. Chris Tienken and Eunyoung Kim from Seton Hall University and Dr. Dario Sforza, a high school principal in East Rutherford, NJ, recently published, “A Comparison of Higher-Order Thinking Between the Common Core State Standards and the 2009 New Jersey Content Standards in High School”. You can read their article in AASA Journal of Scholarship and Practice. There has been "no qualitative analytical research…done to test the assumption that the CCSS are superior to previous state standards in the development of higher order thinking and creativity at the high school level.” 

Level 1
Level 2
Level 3
Level 4


In March 2014, Kevin Welner from the National Education Policy Center, had this to say about the adoption of CCSS in an articleThe Lost Opportunity of the Common Core State Standards: 
"But the unfortunate reality is that whatever its potential benefits, the actual Common Core package will almost certainly exacerbate the policy failures of the past decade. Further, the linking of the Common Core to accountability regimes is a feature, not a bug. It is what was intended from the outset.
Our children deserve so much better than this.
Let's be really clear about this. The development of the standards was NOT driven by educational need. It was driven by political need. 
NJDOE has invested a lot of time and money into pushing CCSS. They have made incredible claims about their value and how much it would propel the children of New Jersey to “college and career readiness,” a term that is still without definition. PARCC, the CCSS-aligned test, was allegedly so good, that when Dr. Tienken asked Bari Erlichson from NJDOE, "Is the test worth teaching to?" Ms. Erlichson replied, "Yes...How many days does it take to get ready for the PARCC exam? 180. That is the length of the school year." This exchange happened at an event in Ridgewood, NJ, in October 2014, hosted by The League of Women Voters. See the entire panel discussion, their exchange begins at 1:18:34.  
That was incredibly high praise for the assumption of good curricula based on standards that still hadn't been vetted and for a test that NO ONE had seen. 
Last year, Governor Christie announced the creation of a task force to study the Common Core State Standards. They were given a very short period of time to take public input, review each standard, and return recommendations for change. The end result was, as expected, a sham. It’s not a reflection of the time parents and teachers on the task force spent reviewing and revising the standards. It certainly was not a reflection of the testimony provided to the task force, but rather the insufficient time frame for producing standards, a report, and the Commissioner's insistence that it would likely be a just a "tweak." The task force came back with a 15% change in the standards, which, magically, coincides with the requirements of PARCC…anything more than a 15% change in standards would require dropping PARCC assessments. 
I still have not gotten answer to my question regarding PTO participation, in spite of help from State Board of Education President, Mark Biedron. So much for transparency from NJDOE.
So, how did Tienken, Kim, and Sforza evaluate and compare the standards? They used Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK) and you can find an in-depth description of their methodology beginning on page 14, and a description of the four levels of DOK on page 10.
DOK levels are described in the article as:
Level 1 Recall: requires “recall a simple definition, term, or fact, or replicate procedure, or algorithm. 
Level 2 Skill/Concepts: students develop some mental connections and make decisions about how to set up to approach a problem or activity to produce a response, apply a recalled skill, or engage in literal comprehension.
Level 3 Strategic Thinking: engage in planning, reasoning, constructing arguments, making conjectures, and/or providing evidence when producing a response and require students to do some original concepts or draw conclusions. 
Level 4 Extended Thinking: engage in complex planning, reasoning, and conjecturing, and to develop lines of argumentation. Items at this level require students to make multiple connections between several different key and complex concepts, inferencing, or connecting the dots to create a big picture generalization. 
What did the study show? From page 18:
"Overall, the high school Common Core State Standards in ELA and M contained fewer standards rated at DOK Levels 3 and 4 than the 2009 New Jersey high school standards in ELA and math. That is, the standards that NJ had in place prior to adopting the Common Core provided more of the Level 3 and 4 higher order skills cited in mainstream business and education publication as necessary capabilities for competing in a global economy."
To summarize their findings, pages 18-23:
Those numbers hardly suggest the far superior product we've been sold. Perhaps most damning in the article is this paragraph on page 26. 
"The results suggest that the previous versions of the NJ high school ELA and math standards included more complex, higher-order thinking and provided more opportunities to practice the types of thinking valued in the mainstream education reform literature as necessary to compete in the global economy. Although some have noted the CCSS as being more difficult than some previous states’ standards, difficulty is not a proxy for creativity and strategic thinking (e.g. Porter, McMaken, & Hwang, 2011). Convoluted prompts and questions and unclear portions of some standards do nothing to foster creative or strategic thinking (Wiggins, 2014)." 
Hard to say where I feel most disappointed. At the local level, I'm really tired of the Kool-Aid laden pep talks from supposed "experts" and "coaches". At the state level, NJDOE and State Board of Education, I'm tired of the gerbil wheel of spin that constantly comes out of their building. I'm tired of them having no accountability. I'm tired of parents and students having no voice. At the federal level, I'm tired of pretty much the same thing as the local and state levels. At state and federal levels I'm appalled at the amount of "philanthropic" money being tossed around and its influence on public policy, none of which addresses the most basic needs of many students. 
Importantly, the status quo approach involves a choice of one set of policies to the exclusion of another. When politicians opt for accountability and market-based privatization policies, they supersede policies that are grounded in best practices — evidence-based reforms that have succeeded in enhancing opportunities to learn. 
In doing so, politicians seem willfully ignorant of the direct connection between opportunity and achievement. Our national opportunity gaps lead inexorably to our achievement gaps. Yet the test-based accountability policies still advocated by politicians disregard the opportunity side of the equation. Capacity building and supports are relegated to a small footnote within a long diatribe about mandated performance. The Marie Antoinettes of today proclaim, “Let them take tests,” callously brushing aside the needs of our children for intellectual nourishment." 
The machine that churns out the This Is The Best Thing Ever! has to be stopped. Some really basic questions have to be answered. Maybe most important for parents is, at what point did you cede your voice and reason to the snake oil salesmen of college and career readiness? And to the State Board of Education, who do you work for? It sure doesn’t look like it’s for the children of New Jersey.
Julie Borst
Attached: Full article: “A Comparison of Higher-Order Thinking Between the Common Core State Standards and the 2009 New Jersey Content Standards in High School” Dr. Chris Tienken Dr. Eunyoung Kim, and Dr. Dario Sforza


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