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  • The Year of Reform

    The school year is now coming to a close, and it is a time for reflection about the challenges faced throughout the academic year; those met successfully and those not fully realized. A year ago in this column I asked the question, “Will reforms get done well or just get done?” As we began the 2013-2014 school year we looked ahead to significant challenges in the form of Achieve NJ implementation and initiatives to address the Common Core State Standards.

    Survey Results NJASA joined the other major New Jersey education associations a year ago in urging Commissioner Cerf to solicit changes to the New Jersey federal waiver to the No Child Left Behind requirements. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had signaled such changes as being appropriate given the significant investment of human and capital resources required to address evaluation changes and implementation of the Common Core State Standards. The association leaders urged the Commissioner to implement the requirements of Achieve NJ, but without immediate accountability through the use of student assessment data to evaluate staff. The association leaders’ request of the Commissioner would have provided an opportunity to evaluate the first year of full implementation, including the use of data never before collected in the form of Student Growth Objectives and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessments piloted this year. The recommendation of the association leaders went unheeded.

    Now, as we look back on the year, we see that the school leaders’ concerns expressed at the start of the year remain unchanged. NJASA joined with both NJPSA and NJEA to survey members in the fall and those designated to attend the NJASA Representative Assembly in the spring of the school year. While NJASA members were most favorable among the three groups in their responses about implementation, less than half felt confident that Achieve NJ will accomplish its goals. Overwhelmingly, school district leaders indicated that there were insufficient financial resources and administrative and supervisory staff to meet the requirements of the new evaluation process. At the same time, increasing numbers of parents are telling school officials that they don’t want their children to participate in standardized assessments or are opposing the implementation of the Common Core State Standards.

    Similar concerns as expressed by NJASA have now made their way into proposed legislation (A-3081) which is cosponsored by both democrats and republicans. The legislation proposes that an Education Reform Task Force be formed which would evaluate the implementation of the Common Core State Standards in English-language arts and mathematics, the use of PARCC assessments, the implementation and potential effect of the teacher and principal evaluation systems and issues related to the use of student data. If the legislation is approved, the task force will examine the current state standards and the Common Core State Standards; the amount of testing time required; the costs required to fulfill the standards; student performance on current and PARCC assessments; districts’ technology capacity; and mechanisms other than standardized assessments to evaluate student, school, and district progress toward meeting state standards. The task force will also identify teacher and principal evaluation rubrics approved by the Commissioner of Education; analyze the distribution of teacher and principal ratings for each evaluation rubric; complete a statistical analysis correlating teacher and principal evaluations and the measures of student growth determined for the teachers and principals; estimate the costs incurred by school districts during the implementation; and evaluate issues related to the use and data mining of student and family personal data.

    If signed into law, the bill would accomplish what NJASA sought in its appeal to Commissioner Cerf. The annual summative evaluation rating of a teaching staff member would not include any student growth percentile prior to the submission of the task force report or two years after the law’s effective data, whichever occurs later. The bill also provides that during the two school years beginning after the effective date of the law a school district would have the option of administering the PARCC assessment online, using a pencil and paper format, or a combination of the two formats. The Department of Education would also be prohibited from using PARCC assessments for any student or school accountability purposes prior to the submission of the task force final report or two years after the law’s implementation, whichever is later.

    Very recently, Vicki Phillips, Director of Education, College Ready of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, wrote that assessment results should not be taken into account in high-stakes decisions on teacher evaluation or student promotion for the next two years. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the country’s largest donors to educational causes and an ardent supporter of the Common Core State Standards. Phillips said that “Applying assessment scores to evaluations before these pieces are developed would be like measuring the speed of a runner based on her time – without knowing how far she ran, what obstacles were in the way, or whether the stopwatch worked!”

    NJASA supports the Common Core State Standards and assessments which accurately measure student accomplishment of those standards. NJASA supports the work to evaluate educator performance linked to effective practices and outcomes for students. Equally important, however, the association leadership supports reform implementation in a prudent and measured way, assessing the impact of new initiatives and providing the support that is needed by the districts to ensure that their efforts meet with the greatest success possible. NJASA will join our partner organizations and support A-3082. I hope that you will as well.