Dear Gov. Murphy/Comm. Repollet/NJEA: Look at This School and Tell Us Again Why You Want to Water Down High School Testing.

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Last week I wrote about the dilemma facing the New Jersey State Board of Education: To accept a low-ball standardized testing proposal from accountability-averse Commissioner Lamont Repollet (ELA 10, Algebra 1, and Geometry, all taken in 11th grade) or gamble on the Legislature passing a bill that would permit the state to test high school students when they finish a course. (See here for more background.)

In a 12-1 vote the Board played it safe and chose the former, with the knowledge that if the Legislature does pass that bill (so easy! c’mon!) they can revisit the DOE’s insistence on lowering standards for a NJ high school diploma.

On Saturday Elizabeth C. Giacobbe, Superintendent of Beverly School District in Burlington County wrote an op-ed in the Burlington County Times lambasting Repollet for “proposing we go backward and institute a watered-down 11th-grade graduation exam that tests kids out of sequence, and without enough time for interventions that might keep them out of costly and time-wasting college remediation courses.”

Giacobbe’s opinion matters. Why? Because when she first came to Beverly School District in 2011 the district was a “focus school” based on students’ low proficiency in math and ELA and extremely large achievement gaps. Four years later the DOE named Beverly its first “Lighthouse District” for not only loosing the “focus” label but raising student proficiency above the state average — double-digit increases. How did this happen? By rewriting curricula that was “data-driven based on standardized test results,” extending the school day, and getting buy-in from teachers and the School Board.

In other words, Giacobbe turned the school around by using PARCC data to ascertain students’ strengths and weaknesses and address them effectively.

She couldn’t have done this without the granular information provided by standard-aligned, grade-level tests, the very assessments that Gov. Murphy promised NJEA he’d eliminate. (Comm. Repollet is, I suppose, just following orders, although he has an affinity for low standards —just check out his 64 Floor scheme.)

Beverly School District has been named a National Title I Distinguished School. Currently 62% of 8th graders (mostly low-income students of color) meet or exceed expectations in ELA (compared to 60% statewide) and 33% meet or exceed expectations in math (compared to 28% statewide).

Here’s Giacobbe’s letter in full:

Have you ever walked into a conversation and couldn’t quite figure out what people were talking about? You listen intently for some key phrases, in the hopes of being able to join in and contribute something intelligent.

This is how the situation feels to me as we continue the discussion about college and career readiness in New Jersey, especially when it comes to the debate about our state assessments. Only some of the important voices are involved, and few are looking at the issues from beginning to end.

When we talk about college and career readiness, we typically focus on how unprepared students are at the end of high school as they enter college or the workplace. Today, over 90% of New Jersey students graduate from high school with a diploma, but nearly half of all first-time college students must take remedial courses.

So why doesn’t a high school diploma equal college-ready? I recently addressed this question for my doctorate research by examining the readiness gaps between high schools and community colleges in New Jersey’s mid-Atlantic region. When I asked high school teachers if their students were prepared for college-level work, most said yes. When I asked college professors about the readiness of incoming students, I got a much different response. One stated, “At least half of my students are woefully unprepared to face the rigor of college English, as readers and as writers.”

Where is the disconnect? Teachers and professors revealed that they had no idea about the academic standards at the other level, reporting a complete lack of connection between high school and college academics. This is a perfect example of the right people having the wrong conversations.

To tackle this issue productively, we must start much earlier on a student’s educational path. In Beverly, a prekindergarten-to-eighth-grade district, we are focusing on connecting standards from grade to grade, developing better fluency skills, and using a variety of assessments that help students demonstrate skills and knowledge and prepare for each next level.

Beverly was recognized as the first of the Lighthouse Districts in New Jersey, as well as a National Title I Distinguished School for using a variety of data to inform instruction and student supports.

And yes, our work has included the state assessments. Although they are unpopular, these tests provide one important source of information about how students are doing. Unfortunately, some of our leaders are now proposing we go backward and institute a watered-down 11th-grade graduation exam that tests kids out of sequence, and without enough time for interventions that might keep them out of costly and time-wasting college remediation courses. We can’t let this happen.

Fortunately, there is a legislative fix that would allow us to reduce state testing in high school overall, while maintaining high expectations and transparent data on academic performance for all kids. We must advocate for Assembly Bill 4957 so we can move past the testing debate and focus on what really matters.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to invite many more people into the college and career readiness conversation from the beginning. I envision a New Jersey where college professors, military leaders, and employers are working together with teachers and administrators, parent and family groups, and policymakers to discuss what we all need to see from our kids.

As it stands now, the pre-K-to-12th sector and higher education are governed by two separate departments. We must commit to better collaboration that allows us to have a shared vision for the future of our students and our state. Only then will this conversation make sense.

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