by Michael Symons
on NJ 101.5 on Wednesday, September 21, 2016
State lawmakers are looking to abolish, or at least limit, the use of standardized test scores in evaluating teachers – a key provision of the tenure reforms adopted in 2012.
The tenure changes are among Gov. Chris Christie’s signature legislative accomplishments, so it seems very unlikely he’d sign the proposed law. But even some lawmakers who appear reluctant to eliminate the use of test scores in evaluations said they’d be willing to consider new limits on their importance.
The backdrop for the move was the December 2015 adoption of a new federal education law that ends a requirement that test scores be part of evaluations. The impetus was the Department of Education’s move three weeks ago to increase the amount that test scores will count for this school year.
“As a nation, we’ve moved away from this,” said New Jersey Education Association president Wendell Steinhauer, pointing to the new Every Student Succeeds Act. “So we have to ask ourselves: Why is New Jersey lagging behind?”
The Christie administration originally intended for student test scores – specifically year-to-year improvements, not the scores themselves – to account for 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. The state lowered that to 10 percent when the new PARCC exams proved controversial but says the kinks have now been ironed out sufficiently to return to the original 30 percent.
Assemblywoman Marlene Caride, D-Bergen, who sponsors the bill eliminating the use of test scores in assessing teachers, disagrees.
“I have my issues with the PARCC test. It’s only three years old. There hasn’t been a year where there has not been a problem with it,” Caride said. She also opposes the use of the tests on principle: “I can’t find anything that convinces me that these standardized tests really test an ability of a child.”
Among the 11 members of the Assembly Education Committee to vote on the bill Monday, only one voted against it: Assemblyman Robert Auth, R-Bergen, who portrayed it as a choice between supporting the NJEA and parents. He said the percentage should be set at 10 percent.
“This bill is a wholesale sellout of students and parents in districts with underperforming schools,” Auth said.
“To say because we had an extreme of 30 percent, that justifies now going to the extreme of absolutely no evaluation by testing, that doesn’t justify that,” he said.
The tenure law gives the Department of Education authority to decide how important test scores are toward teacher evaluations, so long as it’s not the primary factor.
“I think the idea of throwing it completely aside is one that is difficult for some to wrap their brains around, but I think reducing that percentage makes a great deal of sense because that was the original intent,” said Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, who abstained from the vote on the bill.
Singleton said the NJDOE “has gone way too far with the percentage” and added: “I think all of us agree that our children, no matter where they are at, are spending too much time taking tests.”
Eight of 11 lawmakers on the education committee voted for the bill, though two of the Republicans expressed misgivings with eliminating, rather than reducing, the weight put on student test scores.
“I’m the first to one to say that we’re over-testing our children. Standardized testing is out of control. For the bill itself, though, was there a reason we didn’t go back to the 10 percent?” said Assemblyman David Rible, R-Monmouth. “Again, I’m not a fan of standardized testing. I don’t think to get an evaluation of our teacher, we should beat our children’s brains up to do it.”
“I don’t think it’s reasonable to base the school’s performance and also the teacher’s performance on how well a class does on a test. Taking it down to zero? That’s another issue,” said Assemblyman David Wolfe, R-Ocean, who predicted a compromise will ultimately be reached in the Senate that maintains the use of test scores at a reduced level.
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Some education groups told legislators one of the problems with the test-score requirement is that it only applies to around 15 percent of teachers — those who teach math or language arts between grades 4 and 8. The PARCC tests aren’t given in every subject.
“We feel this evaluation pits tested teachers against non-tested teachers and doesn’t set up a good dynamic,” said Melanie Schulz, director of government relations for the New Jersey Association of School Administrators.
“This type of different treatment is a disincentive for educators to teach in tested grades and subject areas. A legitimate question of fundamental fairness could also be made as well,” said Hillsborough Schools Superintendent Jorden Schiff.
“Principals do not have a good answer to the question: Why is my evaluation based upon standardized test scores while my colleagues in other subject areas who do the same job I do are not?” said Debra Bradley, director of government relations for the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.
Groups that backed the tenure reforms adopted four years ago said lawmakers shouldn’t back away from it now.
“Our greatest concern is that the proposed legislation would deny using information needed to have a more complete picture of teachers’ performance,” said Janellen Duffy, executive director of JerseyCAN. “Student growth percentiles should not be the only measure, but it should be a factor, as the original law articulated.”
“It would be a grave mistake to take everything off the table, essentially writing into stone that this one tool would be taken off the table,” said Shelley Skinner, executive director of Better Education for Kids.
“Eliminating this measure in such a blanket form is ill-advised and wrong,” said Paula White, state director of Democrats for Education Reform New Jersey.