PARCC Peace Breaks Out: Compromise Is Reached On High School Testing

Commissioner Repollet and State Board of Education agree on fewer tests, more flexibility. Questions remain.

The Murphy administration and the State Board of Education reached a compromise on the future of high school testing in New Jersey that will mean a couple of fewer tests going forward and more flexibility on what counts toward graduation.

Whether that settles the debate is yet to be seen, not to mention that a court case over the state’s graduation requirements still looms.

Breaking what looked like a rare standoff between the board and the education commissioner, state board president Arcelio Aponte and Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet announced at yesterday board’s meeting that they had reached a compromise that appeared to appease both sides.

The agreement calls for the reduction of state testing in high schools to just ninth and 10th grades, down from the three years now in place but more than the single year of testing that Repollet had hoped for.

Meanwhile, the state would keep in place a vast array of alternative graduation options for students who do not pass the state tests, including reaching certain benchmark scores on the SAT or other college-placement tests.

New rules would apply through 2025

The new rules, if given final approval after a 60-day public comment period, will apply for the next seven years through the Class of 2025, the state’s current sixth graders.

“In all my years on the board, this has been one of the more difficult issues with all the different people weighing in,” Aponte said afterward. “But I do believe the end result is a good result.”

Following up on Gov. Phil Murphy’s pledge to end the controversial PARCC testing on “day one” of his administration, Repollet this spring proposed scaling back the required high school tests to just Algebra 1 and 10th grade language arts. In addition, he would have retained all the alternative assessments now in place for those who haven’t passed those tests.

Repollet’s proposal came in with strong odds, given the early backlash to the PARCC testing from students, families and teachers. But the board proved less amenable, with several members pushing back on the idea of removing so much of the state’s accountability measures, especially for struggling schools.

They were joined by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the influential chair of the Senate’s education committee who hosted a hearing on the topic last week as well.

Nonetheless, the compromise appeared to bridge the two positions, with just two members of the board voting against it, and little dissent — or much comment at all — coming afterward from the various stakeholder groups.

But plenty of questions remain about how this will work and whether it will pass the court’s muster as well.

Questions, questions

Aponte faced a slew of reporters’ questions after yesterday’s meeting about how this would impact students who take Algebra I in 8th grade, for instance, or what exactly would be the cut-off scores for the SATs.

The questions delved into arcane details, and Arcelio said some details would still be decided. For example, he expressed worry that the changes could lessen the availability of geometry instruction in many schools, one of the subjects that would have been required for testing but no longer. Repollet did not stay to answer questions after the meeting.

But a bigger wild card may be the fate of a long-running lawsuit brought by families that complained the state’s testing policies under former Gov. Chris Christie — those Murphy had sought to dismantle — violated state laws and regulations.

A lawsuit looms

The lawsuit is being spearheaded by the Education Law Center, a Newark-based advocacy group; program director Stan Karp said after the meeting yesterday that he wants to review the compromise. Among the complainants’ chief arguments is that the existing testing violates the state law that calls for a single graduation test in 11th grade, albeit with some alternatives for those who do not pass.

“We have to look at the details,” Karp said. “…sounds like they split the baby in terms of the test, but the issues involving the [exit exam] statute and also the use of fee-based tests are still pretty much the same.”

Oral arguments on the case are scheduled for October 29 in state Superior Court in Trenton.

Leaders of the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union, were also taking a wait-and-see approach. They had been among the PARCC tests’ biggest critics, helping lead protests and fighting especially against the use of test scores in evaluating teachers. They had been instrumental in pressing Murphy to oppose the testing, and widely applauded Repollet’s initial plan.

Yesterday, NJEA vice president Sean Spiller was more circumspect, saying the union was not part of the latest discussions. “The short answer is we’ll know more when we see it,” he said. “A lot of this was amended on the fly, so what exactly was passed is a little confusing. From our perspective, we want to see what that looks like.”

“Happy to see they are working through those complexities and hopefully reducing testing, but again, we have to see it.”

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