The Future of Standardized School Testing

“The era of high-stakes, high-stress standardized testing in New Jersey must end, and I will see that it does.” Gov. Phil Murphy made that promise as he campaigned for the office of the state’s chief executive.  

In a memo released March 6, acting Commissioner of Education Lamont Repollet moved to deliver on that promise. Repollet announced the formation of an advisory group to develop a plan to replace PARCC testing.

In 2016, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests were made mandatory requirements for high school graduation in New Jersey for the Class of 2021.

Now, less than two years after establishing that requirement, a new administration is in the process of ending its relationship with PARCC whose contract with the state ends in 2018.

Federal law still requires that students be tested, so PARCC will remain until an alternative mechanism is put into place.

Since 2015, when many of the most controversial provisions of the Bush-era "No Child Left Behind" program were effectively repealed, federal law provides for greater state flexibility in developing less stressful and less consequential testing.

Under Murphy, New Jersey is moving to take advantage of that flexibility, but will such moves ultimately improve the education the state’s children receive?

Cape May County

Cape May County has had a difficult time with PARCC testing. Many complain that it transforms education into test preparation. The scores achieved while showing some improvement over time, stubbornly remain below levels that demonstrate competence.

The spring 2017 PARCC test scores, released by the state Department of Education, show four area high schools with significant percentages of students “not meeting expectations,” the term used for the lowest category of test scores.

Ocean City High School had the best result but with still 18.8 percent of students in that “not meeting expectations” category for the English Language Arts exam for 11th graders.

Lower Cape May Regional High School followed closely at 19.5 percent, with Middle Township High School at 31 percent, and Wildwood High School at 40 percent.

The testing scores for the Algebra I exam were better but with a persistent group of students not meeting expectations.

For Ocean City, 8.6 percent, Lower Cape May Regional 16.3 percent, Middle 24.1 percent, and no score reported for Wildwood.

The scores for those meeting expectations or exceeding them, which are the required scores for graduation using these exams, show that a large number of students would not qualify.

The exams are only useful as measures if one buys into the content, mastery of which they are designed to measure. The tests also take little notice of social factors, especially economically-disadvantaged backgrounds.

Separate scores are computed for students in various economic and racial categories, but the overall scores are the ones most often reported.

Is there a better way to measure the progress schools and districts are making in educating new cohorts of students? Does any of this speak to the goals of college and workplace readiness?

Murphy has said that he is in favor of “assessing kids to make sure we understand how they are doing.”

His criticism is of relying on “big, white-knuckled, once-a-year” tests. Finding a middle ground will be the task of his new advisory group.

New Jersey’s History with Testing

Some forms of standards-based assessments have existed in New Jersey for over 40 years. In 1975, lawmakers passed legislation that served as the legal basis for requiring testing as a graduation requirement.

Various attempts at standardized proficiency testing followed with basic skills testing of third- sixth- and ninth-grade students until 1982, adoption of a high school proficiency test in 1983, adding an eighth-grade early warning test, and the later adoption of Core Curriculum Content Standards (CCCS) under Gov. Christine Whitman. This was different from the Common Core Initiative of 2009, adopted in New Jersey the following year.

The CCCS were used as a basis for assessment at the fourth, eighth, and 11th-grade levels. Controversy followed the process as it has every implementation of a standardized assessment process.

The state-wide assessment system changed with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The new federal law required each state to administer annual standards-based assessments to students at specific grade levels. 

The new federal legislation passed the Congress overwhelmingly. The House vote was 384-45, with the Senate confirming the law by a vote of 91-8.

Revitalizing public education had been a major campaign initiative for President George W. Bush and one which Democrats only half-heartedly attacked. 

To implement the required testing, New Jersey joined the PARCC partnership. In 2010, 24 states and the District of Columbia were members. Only six states remain in the group with New Jersey likely to be pulling out soon. 

As strong as public support was for more rigorous measures to improve public school education in 2001, high levels of dissatisfaction with the era of high stakes testing left opponents with a strong campaign issue in 2016.

Where Does This Leave Us?

Groups like the New Jersey Education Association have made it clear that they are happy to see PARCC’s role in the state ending. Yet the issues that propelled the No Child Left Behind Act and the Obama era’s later Race-to-the-Top program still exist.

What are the goals of public education? Is our public school system there to ensure that students are properly prepared for either further post-secondary education or entry into the general workforce? 

The New Jersey State Board of Education says the aims include ensuring a “thorough, efficient, and equitable system of K-12 education” that prepares “students for college and the workforce by promoting a rich and rigorous curriculum.”

The once important goal of producing knowledgeable citizens is not part of the vision and mission statement of the state board.

So how is the public supposed to ensure that those goals are met? Testing has not supplied the answer.

Problems with large numbers of graduates ending up in remedial education at college persist. Employers still call for better skills and an understanding of the workplace from some graduates who do not demonstrate either the hard or soft capabilities required by entry-level jobs.

Some studies have argued that exit exams for a diploma achieve little except penalizing students who stay in school, complete all course requirements, and play by the rules.

The National Academy of Science’s Research Council studied the issue and concluded in 2011 that graduation tests had accomplished little to raise student achievement, contributing instead to the dropout rate in high school.

In 2017, only 13 states required graduation tests, with eight others ending graduate testing. In six other states, diplomas have been retroactively awarded to students who did not pass the exams.

The only thing that seems clear is that there is a lot of dissatisfaction with the regime of high-stakes testing and states are experimenting with ways to assess improvement in public school education.

What is also clear is that we are in a period in which the federal government has less of an appetite for intruding in what traditionally has been a local governance issue. 

States and local school boards have more opportunity to find workable solutions to assessment issues than they did just a few years ago under the No Child Left Behind legislation.

Where do we go from here?

Unprepared for Life

Results of a national survey of high school graduates from the classes of 2011 through 2014 found that about half of those students felt unprepared for life after high school. 

On the college issue, the high levels of students put into remedial work as freshmen support the concern the survey reports.

A full 83 percent of those surveyed felt they had gaps in their preparation for college, with 49 percent of the surveyed graduates saying the gaps were large.

One-third of the students say they needed more preparation or work and study habits. Eighty-seven percent say that they would have worked harder in high school if they had a better understanding of the demands of college and the world of work.

What did those students suggest as changes that need to be made?

Almost 90 percent wanted more opportunities for real-world learning. They wanted more availability of tutoring, better communication on what is needed for success in college, and a generally better picture of what is required of them as they enter college or the workforce.

Low-income students also reported that they were not encouraged to take advanced courses or to explore career and college opportunities.

Some of this is the remorse of students who did not work hard enough in high school and later wished they had. Yet, there is a ring of truth as well.

Surveys and studies abound that cite the widespread lack of postsecondary readiness with students who, in the word of one such study, “meander” through a college readiness curriculum leaving gaps in areas of math, science, and language skills.

Career-ready curriculums also come under attack largely for not being available. Students say they wanted career-prep programs that gave them some concentration in a career course of study.

Passing tests that are good enough to graduate high school often leave students still unprepared to do college-level work or to successfully navigate to a workforce career path.

The surveys and studies have a common theme. There is a significant gap between what is required to graduate high school and what colleges believe is the knowledge level required to begin college. 

The higher education institutions that are inheriting so many of the students after high school graduation play no role in determining the skills and knowledge the students should have when they graduate high school. 

All of the data on students leaving local high schools in Cape May County and matriculating at the county’s only higher education institution, Atlantic Cape Community College, shows that significant numbers of those students are not prepared for college-level work.

The result is higher levels of remediation, higher levels of attrition, lower levels of persistence, and lower levels of students eventually attaining degrees. This is but one specific aspect of the general problem, but it is also entirely local and should be subject to some improvement by concerted local action.

Conclusion

Education should never be just about entry into the workforce either following high school or after some level of post-secondary education. Yet, surveys tell us repeatedly that career issues predominate in the minds of students and families.

Gallup results say that 60 percent of students entering post-secondary education have as paramount concerns about job and career outcomes.

The multi-year College and Career Readiness survey conducted by San Francisco-based nonprofit YouthTruth showed that an overwhelming number of students in high school did not feel they were getting the help they needed for success after graduation.

More disturbingly, Strada-Gallup Educational Consumer Surveys show that only 33 percent of those in college feel they are gaining the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in the job market.

These are complex problems that will require complex solutions. They do suggest common areas of focus.

Discussions of career options, demonstrating the relationship between curriculums and career prospects, intimate involvement of higher education institutions in helping to resolve the college readiness skills issue before it morphs into remedial education at the college level, and secondary level curriculums that have rich offerings for those for whom college will not be the immediate choice after graduation are all things the studies and surveys tell us are problem areas.

Testing has not proved to be the answer. Certainly, we need to pay attention to what Murphy’s advisory panel recommends. Some form of testing probably will remain with us.

Yet, the opportunity is here for so much more than educating students to pass tests.

K-12 education is still largely a state and local concern.

The private interests of the student are important. Parents want an education that will help their children succeed after graduation. 

The public interest is also important. Taxpayer money should be spent prudently, and the needs of a local or regional economy need to be served. 

Most importantly, communities need to open up the dialogue with local school boards and educators about more than the annual budget, a dialogue concerning opportunities, opportunities that speak to both postsecondary education and postsecondary entrance to the world of work.

The era of continuous standardized testing and nationally-developed content standards pushed other concerns away from the central stage. It may be time to reclaim the dialogue at a community level.

To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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