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2-13-15 Education Issues in the News

NJ Spotlight - It’s Crunch Time for Deciding on PARCC Test Opt-Outs and Implementation Delays

John Mooney | February 13, 2015

As grassroots opposition to new testing grows, NJ lawmakers worry about possible loss of federal funds


Amid the rhetoric and emotion over the new PARCC tests, the logistical questions came quickly yesterday as the Assembly starting weighing new bills to slow down the full implementation of the tests and devise a statewide policy for families who refuse to have their children take the exams.

Would such delays – if not defiance -- put the state in violation of state and federal laws? And would it cost the state and districts an estimated $330 million in federal funding, largely earmarked for low-income students?

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The answers may not be easy to come by, as the federal government’s positions on states and families pulling back from the new testing have become something of a moving target of late.

Over the last two years, as implementation has gotten ever closer and controversy has grown, the Obama administration has been tough on some states that haven’t lived up to their commitments in terms of the new testing.

The prime example: It rescinded a federal waiver granted to Washington State, leading to the reallocation of more than $50 million in federal money. Three other states have received warnings.

But the administration has also shown some flexibility in dealing with other states facing unique and sometimes-technical challenges in fulfilling the commitments they made under the waiver process, in some cases granting extensions or exceptions.

Federal officials have said how the government responds to balky states depends on the “severity of non-compliance” -- and there are a multitude of steps the government says it would take before touching the funding.

At issue in New Jersey are two bills that have drawn wide attention and were before the state Assembly’s education committee yesterday morning.

One would set a statewide policy for districts to follow in allowing families to refuse to participate in the new testing, including possible alternative programs for those children. The opt-out movement has been growing in the state, forcing districts to decide on their own how to handle those students.

The second bill could have even greater implications, as it would delay for three years the use of the new testing in evaluating schools, teachers and students. The chief sponsor of both bills and the chairman of the committee, state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex), said the level of concern about the new testing has been unprecedented in his tenure in the Assembly.

Diegnan stressed that he is not anti-testing, but wants to be more deliberate in how the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) results will be used.

“We would administer the test for three years,” he said, ”but during that period of time it would really be a pilot program to see what’s right about it, what’s wrong about it, and to deal with the issues so then it can be a reliable gauge.

“So really, it’s just, in my mind, imperative we take a time out,” he said. “Let’s put everybody back on the same page.”

There is nowhere close to agreement now. During the hearing, more than 40 people speak both in favor and against the testing. All of the state’s main education groups were on represented, as were parents and educators on both sides of the issues.

In the end, the bill delaying the use of the tests passed the committee by a unanimous vote, with three abstentions, and now heads next to the full Assembly.

But the bills have had less traction in the state Senate, where the chair of its education committee, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), has said she asked state officials to testify about the bills’ implications and regarding the state of the testing program as a whole.

"We have requested the department to come in and give us information to the status of the testing and debunk some of the information that is out there," she said yesterday.

Where Gov. Chris Christie stands is proving to be a guessing game, as well, as he initially stood behind the testing and its use, but lately has backed off on his support of the Common Core State Standards that are the foundation of the tests.

A fundamental question is whether the state can, under current laws and regulations, change direction so close to implementation -- at least without federal approval.

It was a commitment struck in 2012, as New Jersey – with both Gov. Chris Christie and the Legislature’s approval -- sought a waiver from the previous federal rules under the No Child Left Behind Act.

As part of the waiver, the state committed to using PARCC testing as part of the systems for evaluating both teachers and schools. The use of such baselines started last year.

But if the bill passed, it would push back those baselines until 2017 and 2018, respectively, and effectively delay any use of the tests for evaluations until 2020. And that’s if the federal government went along with the delays.

Diegnan has said these details that can be resolved. “That’s something we could work out,” he said.

But so far the federal government hasn’t been too forgiving without being presented with a compelling reason from the states. In Washington State, it was the reluctance to tie testing to teacher evaluations – a prime issue in New Jersey – that cost it the federal-funding waiver after a host of warnings.

A second issue has been related to the opt-out bill, and federal mandates that at least 95 percent of students participate in the statewide assessments. The mandates were put in place under No Child Left Behind to prevent schools from withholding students who would potentially pull down the scores.

But the impetus for the opt-out movement is coming from the families themselves, and the question arose yesterday about whether the state and school districts could be penalized if a large number of students sit out the tests.

Some called that a red herring being raised by the state, with the federal government sure not to penalize districts for what is a parent-led movement.

Diegnan yesterday said he has asked the office of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez for clarification.

“He is confident, as is his office, that it is not an issue,” Diegnan said. “However, the bill is up today for discussion only, so hopefully we can get that on the record. Hopefully, at the next hearing, we will be able to vote on it.”

But federal officials have been less ambiguous in other states. In early 2014, assistant U.S Education Secretary Deborah Delisle wrote Alaskan state officials that states were required to have 95 percent of students take the tests, and she specifically answered a question about whether large-scale opt-outs would imperil the state’s standing.

“This requirement does not permit certain students or a specific percentage of students to be excluded from the tests,” read the letter.

“If (the state) does not assure that all students are assessed, the (U.S Department of Education) has a range of enforcement actions it can take,” Delisle’s letter to Alaskan officials said.



Star Ledger -PARCC tests would not be used to measure students, teachers under Assembly bill

By Adam Clark | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com The Star-Ledger
Email the author | Follow on Twitter  February 12, 2015 at 5:47 PM, updated Feb. 13, 2015 at 7:26 AM

TRENTON — Performance on the new state test for New Jersey students in grades 3-11 would not be used to evaluate students or their teachers under a bill passed today by the Assembly Education Committee.

The bill (A4190) would cover the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) a period of three years beginning with the 2015-16 school year. The bill would not allow the tests to be used in the evaluation of teachers or to determine student placement, promotion or graduation.

The test already will not be used to assess students for those purposes during the 2014-15 school year because results won't be available until the fall. It also will not be required for graduation until 2019. However, it will be used as a 10 percent weight in some teachers' evaluations for 2014-15, a fact union leaders have decried.

"It is not fair to students to base such decisions like advance placement and graduation on the results of an assessment that is unproven, and for many parents and educators, problematic," said Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), a sponsor of the bill. "Until we really know the impact that these new tests are going to have on our students, PARCC test scores should not be used to make such important academic decisions."

The new computerized tests, aligned to the Common Core standards, are designed to be more rigorous and comprehensive than New Jersey's previous state assessments. Proponent say the tests will provide more robust data about student learning.

But the tests have generated backlash from teachers and parents, who believe the tests are too confusing, take up too much instructional time and should not be factored into teacher's evaluations.

The concern has led to an opt-out movement. But The New Jersey Association of School Adminstrators and the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association said they have concerns about the bill.

Patricia Wright, executive director, of the NJPSA, said she understands the concerns about PARCC but anxiety has always accompanied changes in testing.

"I personally remember that huge transition from multiple choice tests to open ended response tests," Wright said. "There was great anxiety related to whether our students would struggle to complete such tasks, but we moved forward because we knew that such tasks were important."

Wright pointed out that PARCC results will also be factored into principals' evaluations and the association is not opposed to it. She suggested making the initial consequences of PARCC small and gradually increasing its impact over the years.

The Education Committee also passed a bill that would forbid schools from giving commercially-developed standardized tests to students in kindergarten through second grade unless required by state or federal law. Currently, those students are not mandated to be tested.

The bill defines a "commercially-developed standardized assessment" as an assessment that requires all test takers to answer the same questions, or a selection of questions from a common bank of questions, in the same manner, and is developed and scored by an entity under a contract with a board of education.

It would not apply to tests used to identify particular student learning needs or the need for special services.

Along with approving the two bills, the committee listened to testimony about a bill that would require schools to offer alternative learning activities to students who refuse to take the PARCC. Forty people signed up for testimony and parents reiterated their concern about the tests, including parents who said they've been told their children will have to "sit and state" at their desks during testing periods.

Diegnan, who introduced the legislation, said all schools should develop policies allowing students to have alternatives if they aren't taking the test. However, he said he personally believes students should take the PARCC.

"Some folks are going to boo me with what I'm about to say," he said. "I think it would be helpful for everybody's kids to take this test for the next three years... You don't know what's wrong with it really until you actually try it."

Adam Clark may be reached at adam_clark@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on twitter at @realAdamClark. Find NJ.com on Facebook.


The Record - Issue of refusal to take tests draws a crowd

February 13, 2015    Last updated: Friday, February 13, 2015, 1:21 AM



The Record

The state Assembly Education Committee drew a crowd to Trenton on Thursday with a bill that would give parents the right to refuse new state tests for their children.

The tests are about two weeks away, and the bill was up for discussion only and not for a vote, but it landed at a time of heightened anxiety and debate about the exams called PARCC.

The controversial tests, which will be given in math and language arts in Grades 3-11, won't count for graduation, grade promotion or class placement, but a growing number of parents say they are refusing to allow their kids to take the tests.

Parents and teachers argued at the hearing that the tests are too hard and draw resources from the classroom and that they shouldn't be used to measure teacher performance. But supporters said the tests better prepare students for college and build critical thinking skills.

"Parents should not have to worry that their children will face negative consequences … if they refuse the test," said Marie Blistan, vice president of the New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers union. "The NJEA believes that parents have the right to act in the best interests of their children."

But other groups, including the New Jersey School Boards Association, opposed the bill, saying it could encourage parents to pull their kids out of testing and that it would be expensive for schools to place staff in other locations for non-testing students.

Districts will have a 20-day window to give the tests next month, and many will start testing on March 2. A second round of tests will take place in April and May.

Although the bill comes too late to have an impact on testing next month, it could affect the later testing, said Patrick Diegnan Jr., D-Middlesex, one of the bill's primary sponsors.

"Going forward, we need to correct this situation," Diegnan said in an interview, adding that the bill had support in the Legislature from Democrats and Republicans.

Diegnan said the Education Committee could vote on the bill at its next meeting in two to three weeks, but he said discussion is needed now to clear up confusion about the tests and to urge superintendents to put policies in place to accommodate students whose families have refused to have them tested.

Some districts have told parents that their children will be supervised in a separate room, or that they can bring books or work to the testing room.

But Education Commissioner David Hespe has said districts do not have to provide alternative settings for the tests.

Hespe also said the tests are a requirement for all students and that local schools should check their own attendance and disciplinary policies to respond to test refusals.

Hespe has been a strong defender of the tests, saying that they will provide detailed and useful information about how students are doing in school that will help teachers improve instruction.

Email: adely@northjersey.com


NJ Spotlight - Op-Ed: Dollars Don’t Make Sense -- Time to Improve Charter School Funding…Inequitable funding for charter schools almost guarantees inequitable treatment for some of New Jersey’s most vulnerable students

Gloria Bonilla-Santiago | February 13, 2015


The amount of money that a charter school receives per student is currently being debated in no fewer than six different states, including New Jersey, New York, Indiana, Georgia, Ohio, and Massachusetts. At the core of the debate is the issue of funding equity when it comes to serving children.

To understand why this issue is so critical, it is important to explain how free public charter schools receive money. One of the key tenets of charter school law is that public funds for educating children should follow the child into any public school that they choose to attend (including public charters).

However, the reality is that in many states, including New Jersey, only a portion of the per-pupil funding follows the child to a charter school. There are two funding areas that together constitute the primary source of the funding inequity facing charter schools: adjustment aid and facilities funding.

I’ll explain both, using the charter I founded -- LEAP Academy University Charter School in Camden -- as an example. It should be noted that charters throughout the country are facing similar issues.

Adjustment Aid

Local districts count all children, whether they attend charters or regular public schools for their funding count. However, in New Jersey, most urban districts keep what is known at “adjusted aid,” thus creating a funding inequity that is unjust and in contradiction with the intent of the charter schools law.

As someone who has dedicated my life to developing a charter school district in one of New Jersey’s poorest and most challenged communities, narrowing of the funding gap can’t come soon enough for the 1,500 students that we serve. While the city’s traditional public schools receive about $27,500 per year per student; LEAP receives 55 percent of that amount.

The lack of equitable per-pupil funding for charter schools is driven largely by the various types of adjustment aid that New Jersey provides to school districts.

The amount of this aid is, at least, nominally driven by the number of students who reside in the district, including charter school students. Still, all the aid stays with the district, even the amount that is attributable to the portion of students attending charter schools.

Although the Charter School Act in New Jersey intended for charter schools to receive 90 percent of the district’s per-pupil funding, charter school students have always actually received on average about 70 percent of the per-pupil funding of their district peers.

The 2008 School Funding Reform Act in New Jersey eliminated Abbott aid to school districts in low-income communities, the original source of the inequity in funding. However, the elimination of Abbott aid led to the start of adjustment aid (and its variations), which simply perpetuated the practice of charter school students receiving considerably less than students in their sending districts.

To understand the impact of adjustment aid, consider three sending districts with the highest potential adjustment-aid payments that would be due to charter schools based on their 2014-2015 projected enrollment numbers -- that is, if charter schools received the adjustment aid attributable to their students. (The projections reflect both a 90 percent and 100 percent adjustment aid amount.)

The estimated payments to charter schools in the Camden City school district (CSSD) at 90 percent would be approximately $17.6 million. Since the charter schools are not receiving this portion of funding, the Camden City school district is gaining an additional $17.6 million for charter school students who are not attending a district-run school.

Again, if we examine the projected enrollment numbers for the 2014-2015 school year, we can see how much adjustment aid each charter school is losing. (Totals do not include the charter schools that were closed last year.)

This missing adjustment aid represents the most significant source of the funding inequity charter schools are facing.

So, from a value standpoint, the difference between LEAP and Camden Public Schools couldn’t be more dramatic. The city’s two public high schools only graduate about half of their students and place a similar amount into colleges. As an independent public school charter district in Camden, LEAP draws from the same low-income student population. But LEAP students perform better -- 10 consecutive classes with a 100 percent graduation and college placement rate.

It is time we receive our fair share of funding.

Facilities Funding

One of the biggest issues for charter school operators in New Jersey is the lack of facilities funding. Since the law does not provide new or existing charter schools with access to local district facilities or facilities funding, charter schools must expend operational dollars to pay for facilities related expenses.

According to the 2013 facilities survey, An Analysis of The Charter School Facility Landscape in New Jersey, the average per-pupil cost for facilities-related expenses is $1,418 -- all of which comes directly from operating funds.

It is evident that charter schools are now an integral element in public education and are here to stay. This is no longer an experiment but a reality of what public education looks like now. Therefore, funding of charter schools must also meet the intention of the laws that created them -- to establish and fund charter schools with public funds that are equal to what is available to a school district serving the same population of students.

The reality is that this is not the case in Camden, where 3,407 students who are enrolled in city charter schools are being deprived of approximately $2,730 per student that should follow them into their schools. This adjustment aid will bring some relief to schools that are struggling to provide their students and families with quality services. This relief does not even include aid for facilities and other state aid that is not factored in the per-pupil adjusted aid that is received by local districts. Camden City receives $46,068,696 in adjusted aid every year and charter schools are getting none of this money.

This needs to change -- and soon.

Equitable funding should be the primer for addressing how charter schools, which are public schools are funded. Anything less is in violation of the rights of those children and parents who opt to attend a public charter school. New Jersey should know better as it has addressed these funding-equity issues for many decades through the courts.

Critics, including school districts and teachers unions have framed this issue as public schools vs. charters, claiming that more charter funding would divert dollars from traditional public schools.

However, the commitment should be to achieving positive and adequate student results -- nothing else. Charter schools have proven to be effective in achieving results for some of the most challenged students.

In New Jersey, for example, charter schools have narrowed the achievement gap between New Jersey’s historically disadvantaged black and Latino population and their statewide white and Asian peers, according to a November 2014 study released by the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. The report noted a 19 percentage point increase in proficiency across five years, larger than those made statewide, or by comparative districts. Nationally, 63 percent of students enrolled in public charter schools are minority students, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

The most recent independent research study on charter school performance conducted by Stanford University compared minority students in public charter schools to minority students in traditional public schools.

Results found that low-income black students enrolled in charters gain nearly one-and-a-half additional months of learning in reading and more than one-and-a-half additional months of learning in math. Moreover, low-income Hispanic students gain nearly three additional weeks of learning in reading and more than a full month in math.

Bottom line: Charters are giving the poorest children a better chance at college and, ultimately, the ability to break poverty’s chronic cycle. Why aren’t they receiving equal funding?

It is time to fund public charter schools and traditional public schools equitably -- before it is too late and students are the losers.

Gloria Bonilla-Santiago is the founder and board chair of the LEAP Academy University Charter School in Camden. She is a board of governors distinguished service professor, graduate department of public policy and administration at Rutgers University.