Hello and good day to Chairwoman Lampitt, Vice Chairwoman Jasey, and all of the Assembly Education Committee members here today. I am Paula White, executive director of JerseyCAN. As the mission-bearer of our non-profit organization, I am called to support initiatives that advance access for all students to receive a high-quality education in the state of New Jersey. To that end, I am delivering testimony on Bill A-4639, whose passage I believe would be a detriment to our state’s most underserved students and, thus, to our organization’s aims.
Everyone in our state knows that New Jersey is consistently ranked as the #1 or #2 state in the United States of America regarding education. That is due, in part, to the standards that we set and the valiant efforts we take to meet them. The same is true for Massachusetts, our most accomplished peer. In Massachusetts, there are both local and state requirements for high school graduation. In this way, local communities maintain autonomy to define what it means to be a school district graduate without disrupting the state’s obligation to communicate uniformly what high school competency looks like in our state.
Simply put, we can and arguably should allow local districts to customize their graduation requirements, but we can and should do so without sacrificing a statewide standard. Having worked with many districts across the state when I served as the chief school improvement officer for the New Jersey Department of Education, I know that districts look to regulatory bodies to guide their efforts to serve students best. With membership in organizations like the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), we have more knowledge of the job marketplace beyond high school than individual districts. It is incumbent upon state leaders to meet – not shirk – their responsibility to set a standard, support local districts to meet it and provide a viable option for students to be successful if they do not meet those baseline requirements set for graduation. And let’s be clear; this should be done in ways that support students’ further growth. To return to the Massachusetts example for graduation requirements, if students score within a lower range of the state’s 10th grade MCAS tests in ELA and Math than the benchmark passing score, schools must create an educational proficiency plan that provides those students and their families with a review of the students’ weaknesses and includes students class-based assessment results and teacher input. This is, therefore, not punitive nor reductive but more holistic and instructive for where to go next for supporting that student. A similar approach in our state would, as the new phrase goes, “feed two birds with one seed.”
I’ve heard the talking points – grades matter more than test scores. That is true, but only to a point. If the driving test only provides a grade on driving in a straight line to the curb, it will not and cannot speak to the driver’s competence to parallel park or reverse. So grades matter, but a standardized way to measure proficiency establishes that we know what is used to determine a grade and how. Another valid point raised by those who support this bill is that instructional time is siphoned away from students to take tests. This can be true, but only if we make it so. We should be doing assessment audits to balance this, and we should be thinking about length of tests, adaptive technologies and the like. We don’t discard things wholesale that have value, we use our professional expertise to tweak them. We also hear that graduation tests can be duplicative, speaking again to the point of over-testing. Well, they can be, but they need not be. Lastly, we hear time and time again about the anxiety tests produce. As an educator, I know that we set the tone by framing the moment. We can make sure that we make the anxiety elevator go down, not up, by using what we know about mental health to support our students. This will help them to navigate the tests they will later take to become the accountants, plumbers, doctors, lawyers, and estheticians and other professionals our society needs.
JerseyCAN, and certainly I, as the other of three high school graduates, understand that the eleventh-grade year is chock full of high-stakes decisions as students prepare to apply to the colleges of their choice and/or make other decisions about their future. Senator Ruiz (S-50) and Assemblywoman Lampitt (A-4364) rightfully proposed the state flexibility for assessment delivery, which we support.
In this, Women’s History Month, I am reminded of the words of my heroine, Mary McLeod Bethune who once said, “Power, intelligently directed, can lead to more freedom.” This body has the power to regulate the parameters of the high school graduation requirement in New Jersey. The manner in which this is done will help to determine how well our students are equipped for life beyond high school, and thus how much freedom they ultimately have to pursue their dreams. I implore you to use that power wisely as you so often have for the myriad of issues upon which you must decide. Please help our students to know what competency looks like by maintaining a state-set standard so that our systems of support can help them meet that standard and become competent and poised to lead fulfilling, self-actualized lives. Lives that they decide on, instead of having decisions made for them because of academic deficits they take with them to college or the workforce that we hid from them and offered no way to fix.