Thursday, August 4, 2016

NJ School Board: Punish Children for Sins of Adults

In an act of ignorance, arrogance, shortsightedness, and cowardice, the New Jersey State Board of Education has determined that the PARCC tests in Algebra 1 and 10th Grade English Language Arts will be the determining factor in whether a New Jersey school child will graduate from high school. The ruling begins with current 8th graders, which means the full effect of the law will hit in 2021. Currently, only about 40% of students pass these tests, but according to State Education Commissioner, David Hespe, "you have to have an aggressive goal." The proposal was opposed by a broad based group of parents, local school boards,  and teachers.

The School Board seems determined to set the target high for children, while setting the target very low for themselves. They have learned no lessons from recent education policy history, turned a blind eye to more promising ways to assess student learning in high school, and totally disregarded the failure of the state to provide learning conditions conducive to all students excelling in school. I wish Commisioner Hespe saw fit to set an "aggressive goal" for the School Board.

Recent history demonstrates that setting impossible to reach goals does damage to education. In 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) decreed that 100% of children would be proficient, based again on a standardized test, in language arts and mathematics, by 2014. Perhaps you heard, that didn't happen. What happened instead is that schools were labeled as failing, teachers and children were made to feel like failures, teacher morale hit an all time low, curriculum was narrowed to focus only on tested areas, and states started to game the tests by setting lower standards. We can expect the same to happen in New Jersey by 2021, but we will be able to add onto that a vast number of young people wandering the streets without a diploma, many of whom would have qualified with more enlightened assessment.

That more enlightened assessment would take the form of a portfolio of student work, gathered over a four year high school career that shows what a student has learned and is able to do in a variety of subjects that matter, not solely algebra and English. A portfolio is similar to what artists, actors or architects compile to show the quality of their work. Tests could be included in these portfolios, but the tests should be rooted in the criterion developed by teachers in the classroom, so that students are being tested on what they learned. Portfolios would certainly be a better indicator than two standardized tests of  a student's preparedness for "college and career." Apparently, the NJ School Board already knows this is a viable method because portfolios are offered as an alternative for students who, after several tries, don't pass the test.

Why not formalize portfolios as the expectation for all? School Board members might say portfolio assessment would be too time consuming to offer all students. This is only true if assessment is viewed by the State as a hammer to hold over the heads of schools and children. If assessment is seen as a cooperative venture, than local school districts can be tasked with reviewing the portfolios and determining eligibility for a diploma. The State could then monitor each school district by reviewing ten or so portfolios at random to ensure that school districts are maintaining high standards. It is called trust and verify, but apparently the NJ School Board has decided that trust is not in its vocabulary.

Finally, the School Board decrees that this test will be mandatory for all children, while failing miserably to make sure that all children in the state have anything approaching the resources they need to make this happen. The struggles of inner city schools have been well-documented and much of that struggle comes from the debilitating impact of poverty. Many programs could be instituted in the state to ameliorate the impact of poverty, but the only thing the state has been able to come up with is charter schools that do not better, on average, than public schools. The reason that charters generally do no better is because no school can overcome the educational impact of poverty on a child's brain, a child's physical health and a child's readiness to learn. Charter schools are a way to distract the people of NJ from the real issues no one wants to deal with: income inequity and segregation.

But it is not just the urban districts that have not been well-supported by the State. Many districts in affluent areas have also been shorted by the State according to the State's own funding formula, the School Finance Reform Act of 2008 (SFRA). The story of education in the last 30 year in New Jersey is a story of chronic under-funding, test based accountability, and failure to find real, sustainable solutions to educational issues in inner cities, even in those urban school districts that the state has taken over.

I would like to suggest an "aggressive goal" for the New Jersey State School Board. Go back to the drawing board and:

  1. Consider how the very portfolio assessment you suggest as an alternative could be the gold standard for all students. 
  2. Recognize that PARCC proficiency is based on the National Educational Assessment Program (NAEP) tests and is set way higher than the state mandated "basic competency" test and remove it as a graduation gate keeper.
  3. Lobby to ensure that all schools are appropriately funded.
  4. Support social programs, including high quality early childhood programs, and wrap around community services programs that will help children be prepared to learn in school.
In New Jersey, as well as elsewhere in the nation, it is time for policy makers to stop punishing children for the shortcomings of adults.