With New Student Test Results Released, Repollet Tries to Turn New Jersey Public Schools into One Big Asbury Park.

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Yesterday Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet presented the State Board of Education with last Spring’s standardized test scores. NJ Spotlight describes the results as “leveling off of gains under the old PARCC tests, with only about half the students passing the math and language-arts exams.” The Star-Ledger concluded, “many New Jersey students are still struggling to make the grade, and statewide gains in test scores are starting to level off.” 

In our fifth year of testing students with standardized tests aligned with course content (unlike our old assessments that artificially inflated proficiency rates by using test questions below grade-level), New Jersey public school students’ progress has stalled. Why?  

Assistant Education Commissioner Linda Eno says, “We don’t have a complete story just looking at this picture.” I beg to differ. As I look over the data, I keep returning to something Repollet told a group of administrators during his superintendency in Asbury Park: “I don’t  think it’s  good for the self-esteem of students to keep failing test after test that they already know they’ll fail.”

This may  sound compassionate. I think it sounds insulting and reeks of the soft bigotry of low expectations. I think Repollet, with Gov. Murphy/NJEA leaders’ encouragement, is implementing his 64 Floor ideology statewide, one that he used in Asbury Park to dramatically raise graduation rates by lowering standards to the point where no student could fail a class, let alone a test. (See here  for a full explanation of the 64 Floor; see here for when Repollet confirmed for a Senate committee what sources had told me, and justified it by claiming that teachers “weaponize grades.”) 

I’m far less worried about students’ “self-esteem” than regressing to the old Jersey habit of inaccurately assessing  student growth and proficiency. Such pretense hurts everyone the DOE is supposed to serve, primarily students and their parents. It turns the new transparency of the PARCC tests into an opaque murk of universal success. 

Sure, it felt good. We loved saying, 90% of our kids master ELA and math! But it will feel lousy when NJ students graduate high school utterly unprepared for college, career, or the military, when 46% of NJ college freshmen are required to take non-credit-bearing remedial coursework.

JerseyCAN asked the question this past June: “Will we maintain challenging standards and assessments that ensure a high school diploma means something for all students, and work together to provide additional support to those that need it most? Or, in this pivotal moment, will we reverse years of promising progress and be satisfied with an education system that allows social promotion, leaving a student’s future destiny to be determined by ZIP code?”

The answer to the question is that if the State Board bows to Repollet’s wishes, we will indeed reverse years of progress. But, hey, he answers to a higher authority, Gov. Murphy who, in turn, answers to NJEA leaders.

Let’s first look at the data and then at the surprise announcement at yesterday’s meeting. While student proficiency improved in some grades during the PARCC tests last Spring, in other grades student outcomes dropped, particularly in math. (I suspect that we haven’t made any progress in closing the achievement gap between low-income and higher-income students but I haven’t seen that data yet.) In third-grade English Language Arts (ELA), an important indicator of future academic success, 50.3% of students reached proficiency compared to last year’s 51.7%. Eighth-grade ELA scores went up, from last year’s 60.4% proficiency to this year’s 62.8%. We saw a big jump in ELA 10 — maybe because passing that test is required for high school graduation: Last year 49.9% were proficient and this year 58% were. Most other ELA scores were flat, except for ELA 11, which hardly anyone took. 

Now let’s look at math scores. Third-graders continued to improve: From 2014-15 to 2018-19, proficiency rates went from 44.9% to 55.1%, with a two-point jump from last year. Nice! But scores in 5th, 6th, and 7th grade dropped. In fact, 6th grade math proficiency rates dropped just below where they were in 2014-2015. And Algebra 1 scores were particularly disconcerting. To succeed in college, you really need to know Algebra — not just Algebra 1, but Algebra 2, especially since this report notes that NJ has “one of the lowest projected needs [in the country for jobs that require] two-year degrees or less.” So how did NJ students do in Algebra 1? In 2017-18, 45.8% were proficient. In 2018-2019, scores dropped to 42.9%.

Most troubling is the five-year trend: When we started administering PARCC in 2014-2015, we saw steady increases in student proficiency every year through 2017-2018 Last Spring Mike Cohen of Achieve Inc. noted,

When I look at the evidence of academic performance in New Jersey, you have made quite a few gains in the last four or five years. I know PARCC is not popular, but when you look at the trends on that, the gains are pretty impressive compared to other states across the country. You should take a little time to reflect on all that you have accomplished, particularly in difficult times.

That trend is no longer present. 

Candidate Murphy’s platform promised NJEA that he would get rid of PARCC on “Day 1.” (Here’s my explanation of why that was impossible.) His appointee, Repollet (who Murphy said he chose because of the astonishing increase in Asbury Park’s graduation rate —  due to lowered standards and chicanery, the “64 Floor” thing) has yet to eliminate accurate assessments of student proficiency. 

But it’s not for lack of trying.

Yesterday Repollet surprised the State Board of Education by informing them that he has a new plan: To continue PARCC tests for at least another two years while the DOE issues a Request for Proposals to design a brand-new test (that will look a lot like PARCC but will be called something else). His plan is that there will be no 10th grade tests at all, just above the bare-bones required by federal law, annual testing in grades 3-9 and 11th grade ELA and math tests.

Now, last September when Repollet went before the State Board with a similar plan — to reduce high school assessments to 10th grade ELA and Algebra 1 — the Board tabled Repollet’s recommendations (which are no longer available on the DOE website). Later, Senator Teresa Ruiz, chair of the Senate Education Committee, applauded the Board’s move, saying, “What we don’t want to do is socially promote students who are not meeting the bench mark.” She added, “If we move entirely away from that in the high school years, what kind of data will we be getting to our families and to our teachers and to our principals, to make sure there’s a remediation plan that protects that child?

Lousy data. Pie-in-the-sky data. Just like in yesteryear.

But Repollet, I guess, is hoping the Board has short memories and that something unpalatable a year ago tastes fine today. I’m not sure what will happen. Spotlight reports, “Numerous questions were raised out of the gate by state board members, including why they were only seeing the latest proposal now, when it seems the administration is far along the process.” (Word from inside is that the DOE was working on RFP’s at least a few months ago.) Board Vice President Andrew Mulvihill said, “Your proposal, we are seeing it for the first time today.” JerseyCAN and Better Education for Kids found Repollet’s new idea “troubling,”  given “the lack of information being provided about the intended assessment and without first having more a public statewide discussion on what should be included in the succeeding assessment.”

Here’s what I hope happens: The State Board doesn’t fall for Repollet’s scheme to implement a statewide version of the 64 Floor,  holds its ground on more than two tests in high school, insists on grade-level assessments (that, if re-engineered, will look a lot like PARCC but cost NJ taxpayers another few million dollars), and turns this past year’s regression into a blip that disappears as NJ students continue to attain proficiency at higher and higher levels.

Let’s not turn New Jersey into a sprawling Asbury Park. We can agree on that, right?

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