Dear Senator Allen and Assemblymen Conaway and Singleton:
The results of the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests are in, and once again, they show what most of us have known for decades: that New Jersey’s students are among the top in the nation.
The NAEP scores also show something else we’ve known for decades: that students’ standardized test scores largely correlate with their socioeconomic status. New Jersey and Connecticut, another top-performing state, are among the wealthiest in the nation, and we can interpret as much from their results.
But within even the wealthiest states in the nation, and certainly here in New Jersey, there exist concentrated areas of poverty where students produce test scores that are lower than those of their wealthier counterparts. Governor Christie labeled schools in these urban areas as “failure factories,” primarily because he believes that students’ “success” or “failure” is determined solely by scores on standardized tests.
We, as educators, know differently: the children in the State of New Jersey are not failures, and they should not be treated as such.
Good teachers know that if one student in a class struggles while the rest of the group excels, the solution is not to completely change of the course of instruction to affect the entire group: the solution is to provide additional support and encouragement to the struggling student while maintaining high expectations for all children in the room.
The very same concept should apply to districts in New Jersey, especially given that our State has a long track record of academic excellence. Common sense tells us that students who come to school hungry, sick, abused, or neglected generally produce lower test scores than students whose living conditions are more stable, and common sense also tells us that the best way to improve academic achievement for students living in poverty is to improve the societal conditions that make it extraordinarily difficult for them to succeed. The common-sense solution: we should focus our resources on supporting struggling districts while allowing successful ones to continue making educational decisions that are best for their students.
But instead of implementing common-sense solutions, policymakers in New Jersey have implemented sweeping, punitive reforms that force all districts—even the most successful ones—to place too much emphasis on standardized test scores. These changes have not been proven to improve educational conditions for anyone, yet districts are being forced to fund and implement them regardless of whether or not they believe them to be good for children.
In response to these mandates, a growing number of parents are expressing discontent about the increasing number of standardized tests their children will take—and the high-stakes consequences associated with those tests. Similarly, educators across the state have great and numerous concerns about ACHIEVE NJ, the evaluation system that uses students’ standardized test scores to determine teacher effectiveness. Here’s why:
- Profiteering corporations—not classroom teachers and other professionals directly involved with educating our children—are guiding curricular decisions in schools. Pearson, the testing company that was just awarded the contract for the PARCC exams—which 3rd-11th grade students in New Jersey will take next year—has a decades-long history of scoring and test-construction errors that have affected tens of thousands of students and cost the corporation tens of millions of dollars in fines. Yet between the tests they create and the textbooks and test-prep materials they sell to districts in order to prepare students for the tests, Pearson will make hundreds of millions of dollars from our children. Should we trust a company whose primary interest is profit to understand the needs of our children or dictate what they learn in school?
- Standardized tests themselves are inherently flawed; they’re extremely limited in the skills they purport to assess (typically, language arts and math), and since teachers and parents are not permitted to see secure testing items, there’s often no way to understand how and why students earned the scores they did—or even whether or not test questions are appropriate or fair. Many times, standardized test scores are not returned until the summer, when students have moved on to new teachers and new courses, and the scores offer no insight into a student’s perceived strengths or weaknesses. Instead, students and their teachers are reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet, and the “data” that results will dictate whether children, teachers, and schools are successes or failures.
- Many districts have estimated that they’ll spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to implement the Department of Education’s reforms, and taxpayers will bear the brunt of the burden for these unfunded mandates. Districts must be equipped with adequate technology to administer the PARCC exam, and many districts have cited the cost of technology upgrades as justification for laying off teachers and other professionals.
- Many students and teachers who field-tested the PARCC exams this year cited numerous problems with the tests; some reported that the website crashed repeatedly, many observed that the tests were disorienting or difficult to navigate, and still others found the questions and passages to be unreasonably difficult. For many, the process of field-testing, which in many districts only involved a sampling of students, shed light on how logistically difficult the PARCC will be to administer to entire student populations—and how much instructional time will be lost for these tests.
- Not only are standardized tests themselves flawed, the process by which the New Jersey Department of Education will use scores on those tests to evaluate teachers is equally flawed for many reasons. Bruce Baker, a professor at Rutgers University Graduate School of Education, Joseph Oluwole, a professor at Montclair State University, and Mark Weber, a public school teacher and doctoral candidate at Rutgers University, have written extensively about Student Growth Percentiles; ultimately, their research raises serious concerns about the validity of SGP calculations as measures of teacher effectiveness. Tying students’ test scores to teacher evaluations ultimately forces a narrowing of the curriculum, hinders collaboration among teachers and pits them against each other, and is not an effective method of identifying successful or struggling educators. Teachers want to be evaluated, but meaningful evaluation can only be done by professional educators who actually observe what happens in a class and engage in dialogue about what’s working and what’s not.
In short, high-stakes tests do not improve education; instead, when relied upon too heavily, they have the exact opposite effect.
As educators, we know that all of our students possess gifts and talents, many of which cannot be measured by multiple-choice tests in language arts and math. We know that all children deserve rich, diverse programs of studies that are not compromised in the name of test prep. We know that all children deserve educators who are free to do what they know to be best for their students—instead of being forced to spend their time and energy on test prep. We know that when districts are forced to cut the people and programs that make children love school in the name of test prep, we have a responsibility to speak out against such destructive practices. And we know that children who struggle academically need to be supported and encouraged—not repeatedly tested and labeled—in order to flourish.
For these reasons and many more, we cannot support the overuse and misuse of tests whose sole purpose is to label children, teachers, or schools as successes or failures. We cannot support untested and unproven educational policies—especially at the expense of children, teachers, and taxpayers. We cannot support the supplanting of people, quality instructional programs, and public schools by computerized test prep, prepackaged curricula, and charter schools. We cannot support reforms that punish our most at-risk children and widen the opportunity gap that exists before children even set foot in a classroom. We cannot support the standardization of our children and teachers in the public school system that’s tasked with ensuring all students receive a world-class education. And we cannot support education policy that will ultimately drive our best and most beloved educators from the profession.
We ask that you please consider co-sponsoring S-1841/A-2901, which will delay the implementation of PARCC testing and the use of SGPs as measures of teacher effectiveness for the 2014-2015 academic year. We also ask that you consider supporting similar bills, such as A-3081, A-3079, A-3077, S-253/A-990, and S-1581/A-2723, which all seek to slow down implementation of reforms that simply need more time to be evaluated before they are mandated.
And finally, we ask that you continue to listen to the concerns of parents and educators, as they know what is best for our children.
The Delran Education Association
Representing 300 teachers and Education Support Professionals