To much applause, New Jersey last month became one of only a handful of states to have its Every Student Succeeds Act education plan — the replacement for the No Child Left Behind Act — approved by the U.S. Department of Education.
Educators and administrators criticized No Child Left Behind, signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, for giving too much control over local education to the federal government by requiring testing, reporting and proficiency standards. Change came in 2015 with the ESSA, which transferred much of the control over the educational process back to the states but maintained an emphasis on annual testing as a measure of school performance. States were required to submit an ESSA plan to the federal DOE for approval this year.
But while educators across the state have praised the recent approval, some are concerned ESSA is still too heavily focused on standardized testing.
“So much time is devoted to the current implementation (of testing) that critical instructional time is lost. I believe that there are many other indicators that can be utilized in measuring a student’s growth,” said Vineland Public Schools Superintendent Mary Gruccio.
The N.J. Department of Education said the state’s plan is about much more than the standardized test. The ESSA requires districts to establish state standards and goals and assess progress; identify and support schools in need of improvement; measure and report performance; and provide support. The ESSA’s new accountability system goes into effect in the 2017-18 school year.
David Saenz, spokesman for the NJDOE, said the state’s plan was developed with input from hundreds of stakeholders, including the New Jersey Education Association and educators.
New Jersey’s plan keeps in place the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, required each year for students in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. The plan aims for at least 80 percent of all students and each subgroup of students to meet or exceed grade-level expectations on the statewide language and mathematics tests by 2030. The 2016 average was about 50 percent.
Saenz said New Jersey has required annual testing for 45 years and the new federal law requires a standardized test as part of a state’s ESSA plan. He said PARCC met the federal requirements.
“The PARCC assessments are aligned to New Jersey’s academic standards and go beyond multiple-choice questions to get an honest reflection of the student’s understanding of the standards. As such, teachers really can’t ‘teach to the test.’ If students understand the standards, they should do well on the assessments,” Saenz said.
He said the test results from the first year of implementation to the third year show improvements in math and language performance.
“Over 88,000 more students met or exceeded expectations across all grade levels in (English language arts), and nearly 70,000 more students met or exceeded expectations across all grade levels in math,” Saenz said.
Wildwood Superintendent J. Kenyon Kummings said his district had an opportunity to be involved in New Jersey’s ESSA planning process and host a community engagement program in the city. He is hopeful the new plan will be positive for students and schools.
“We’re at a new stage. I’m hoping that it’s not more of the same. I think there were a lot of lessons to be learned from No Child Left Behind,” Kummings said.
The NJEA, the state’s largest teachers union, was also disappointed with the PARCC requirements, according to spokesman Matthew Stagliano. He said the new federal law was an opportunity to use multiple measures to evaluate the success of schools and New Jersey’s plan doesn’t take advantage of that.
“We hope that it changes somewhere along the way here,” he said.