Monday, June 30, 2014

South Brunswick Local Board of Education - May 19th, 2014

Good evening, my name is Melissa Katz and I live at... I have been a lifetime resident of South Brunswick and graduated last year. For those of you who do not know me as well, I am an Urban Elementary Education major at The College of New Jersey and I have been independently studying education reform for about a year now. This past Thursday, May 15th, I attended and testified at the Assembly Education Committee Meeting, which resulted in the unanimous passing of Assembly Bill A-3081, which establishes the Education Reform Review Task Force to  analyze the implementation and potential effects of the adoption of the common core state standards, the teacher evaluation system, and the use of assessments developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC assessments). It also stipulates that the student growth percentile (a measure of how much a student’s test score has changed relative to other students who have a similar test score history) may not be used in a teaching staff member’s summative evaluation until the task force submits its final report, or two years after the bill’s effective date, whichever occurs later. Similarly, the bill also states that the assessments developed by the Partnership for Assessment of College and Career Readiness may not be used as the high school graduation requirement until the task force submits its final report, or two years after the bill’s effective date, whichever occurs later. Under the bill, 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, in the two school years following the bill’s enactment. It was a pleasure to see Dr. McCartney also in attendance at the meeting with the New Jersey Association of School Administrators (NJASA). It was also a pleasure to hear Mr. Patrick Fletcher, who spoke on behalf of the NJASA, express serious concern over the reform movement and specifically the upcoming full implementation of the PARCC tests. I contacted the NJASA to get a copy of the testimony and I would like to read a portion of what was said on Thursday:

“We disagree with the pace of the reform effort and the current implementation strategy associated with it. We have particular concerns with the Partnership for the Assessment of  Readiness for College and Career or PARCC which is the test instrument that will be used to measure student mastery of the Common Core Standards in mathematics and English\language arts for grades 3
through 11. Our concerns are focused around seven points as well as some fundamental philosophical issues.

1) Increased time devoted to testing. Two tests will be administered during each year - a
Performance Based Assessment and an End of Year Assessment. The tests will require
approximately nine hours to administer. This is much more than the current time devoted to
state testing. This will reduce instructional time for students and impact school operations.
Clearly this is an undesirable development especially when we consider the overall challenges of
preparing our students to meet the demands of the 21st century. The increase in testing time
will mean fewer opportunities for teachers and administrators to meet with staff and parents as
well as impact the number of evaluations/observations that can be completed during testing
months. Capacity to complete the entire evaluation process on anyone teacher is seriously

2) Each test is computer based assessment. The use of technology for testing means it won't be
available for instruction. And since districts have varying technology capacities, in terms of
bandwidth, devices, and expert personnel, this will result in unequal district-by-district and
school-by-school test experiences.

3) Changing assessments has historically meant that districts, schools and students experience a
performance dip. During my thirty year career, New Jersey has changed tests at least three times. Each time, there was a drop in scores. Who will determine if this dip is caused by student
fatigue due to increased testing time, an uneven use of technology, or the supposed increase in
standards rigor? As a result, there is a growing movement to "opt out" of the testing program.
The lack of a clear policy that addresses this issue will compromise the seriousness of the
assessment process. This will certainly have an effect on the teacher and principal evaluation

4) These tests will negatively impact our most vulnerable students - those with special needs and
our English Language Learners (ELLS). Many if not most of these students receive extended time
on any test as part of their educational accommodation. Now, they will have to endure even
longer testing sessions. The proposed accommodations are extremely complex and will increase
the time devoted to test administration which further compromises the education of these
children. Standardized tests are for the most part biased with regards to students with special
needs. We are now applying a one size fits all approach that will certainly further compromise
the social, emotional well-being and self-esteem for these students. This is very difficult to
comprehend when the whole purpose of having these children in specialized programs with
trained professionals is to help them compete and succeed on "a non-leveled playing field".

5) These tests will also negatively impact our younger student. Many children in the lower grades
are already stressed due to high stakes testing. The physical and emotional demands of forcing
young children into over nine hours of testing are daunting. Many of these children will be
negatively impacted simply because they do not possess the skill set to properly use a keyboard.
The new system will also increase anxiety because of how results are will be used. Young
children are not immune to this issue. To bring the issue into greater relief, we administer a
three hour exam on a Saturday to high school juniors that has a profound effect on their futures
and it takes us nine hours to test a third grader. Something is not right.

6) Affording the technology necessary to conduct statewide, online testing is financially straining
districts whose budgets are statutorily capped for growth. Few districts are truly technologically
prepared for PARCC in terms of having enough computers; enough bandwidth; and enough
people to make sure everything works. The irony here is that the State Department of Education
faces these same capacity issues. At the same time that districts are straining to meets the
demands of the testing program, we are all absorbing the training and professional
development costs associated with the new evaluation systems.

7) We must also consider that several states have pulled out of PARCC over this past year. Several
others are providing flexibility to local districts. There has been a significant rise in "grassroots
parent groups" against standardized testing. And for the first time that I can remember, the
major educational groups in New Jersey - NJEA, NJPSA, NJPTO and NJASA all stand united in
asking for an opportunity to get this reform opportunity done correctly, not just quickly.

In conclusion, it is crucial to remember how important leadership for local school districts is at this time. There are enormous curricular, philosophical and organizational shifts in play. And; just when leadership is most needed, we appear to be doing everything possible to drive it away. Many respected colleagues who possess the expertise to implement these reforms properly are now in other states or other careers. These are not democratic or republican issues. They affect every community in New Jersey.”

Also, as per the testimony from NJASA, there are estimates regarding the time that will be spent on standardized testing. For grades 4 and 5, the summative total will be 9 hours and 20 minutes between PBA (Performance Based Assessments) and EOY (End of Year Assessments); 9 hours and 25 minutes for grades 6 through 8; and 9 hours and 45 minutes for grades 9 and 10.

As I said earlier, it was a pleasure to hear these issues being addressed. At the same time, it was a little disappointing, and I say this with the utmost respect, to see our own superintendent Dr. McCartney supporting A-3081 and addressing the issues at the state level, while there has been relative silence from our board locally. I personally find it ironic that everything stated by the NJASA echoed the exact concerns expressed by community members here in South Brunswick, yet those concerns mostly went unaddressed and met with some pushback. Because of this testimony and what I have witnessed from other districts and boards across the state, I am strongly recommending that is it time for South Brunswick to take an official stance on all of the changes happening in education today. One of the most important things to understand is that South Brunswick is not alone in this. Every district in New Jersey is having to adjust to the immense changes that are all happening at once - Common Core, PARCC testing, the new teacher evaluation system, changing technologies, etc. But many boards across the state have taken a stance on the issues, which has yet to be seen in South Brunswick. I want to first read a portion of a resolution passed by the Bloomfield Board of Education in which they express concern over standardized testing and the reform movement:

“As with all public school districts in New Jersey, the Bloomfield Public Schools are mandated to test their students using standardized tests. These tests are now used to evaluate students, teachers, administrators and schools. The emphasis on testing has increased under the Race To The Top initiative and No Child Left Behind waivers. The Bloomfield Board of Education has questioned the validity of using these kinds of tests for such assessments.
The Bloomfield Board of Education has held four forums dealing with current education issues, including high-stakes standardized testing. The tests have taken priority over what should be taught in our classrooms. Teachers are frustrated with the daily regimentation of test preparation. There is little time remaining for students to examine in depth and explore with curiosity the true meaning of learning. Classroom teachers are forced to become drill instructors with students being indoctrinated into being proficient test takers yet lacking the exposure of a truly comprehensive education.  The tests now seem to have become the purpose of education, rather than a measure of education.
We believe that every child should have an equal opportunity to prosper and be provided the skills to be a successful member of society. Every child deserves a full curriculum in a school with adequate resources. We are deeply concerned that the current overemphasis on standardized testing is harming children, public schools, and our nation’s economic and civic future. It is our conclusion that the over-emphasis on high-stakes standardized tests is threatening public education, as we know it.
It has become a significant burden on our school system to provide the required mandated programs that are not funded by either the state or the federal government. The cost of funding these programs has negatively impacted on our ability to provide a thorough and efficient educational experience for all our children.”

The Highland Park Board of Education, which has had many issues of its own, was also able to pass a resolution regarding the same issues. Again, in part, it reads:

“WHEREAS, the Highland Park Public School district has spent approximately $525,650 and
will be required to spend an unknown additional amount for administrative positions,
professional development, technology, and staff time to implement these mandates; and
WHEREAS, the Highland Park Public School district’s Projected State School Aid for the
2014-15 budget represents a total increase in state funding of $31,740, or 0.9%, which
includes PARCC Readiness Aid of a mere $15,870 to offset the substantial requirements of
the PARCC assessments; and
WHEREAS, AchieveNJ is an unfunded mandate and the PARCC assessments are a severely
underfunded mandate; and
WHEREAS, the New Jersey State Assembly has introduced Assembly Bill A3081, which calls
for a minimum of a two-year delay in the use of the PARCC assessment data for any student
or school accountability purposes, and calls for the creation of a task force to analyze the potential effects of the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, the new teacher
evaluation system, and the use of PARCC assessments.
NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, the Highland Park Board of Education strongly supports
passage of Assembly Bill A3081; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that a moratorium be placed on the use of SGP’s in a teaching
staff member’s summative evaluation until such time as the measure has been
independently validated; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that full reimbursement be provided for costs incurred in the
administration of and training related to the PARCC assessments and the accompanying
administration evaluation mandates; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that school districts be given the option of administering the
PARCC assessment online, using a pencil and paper format, or a combination of the two
during this timeframe; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that a copy of this resolution be sent to Commissioner David
Hespe, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, Senator Peter J. Barnes, III, Assembly
Education Committee Chair Patrick J. Diegnan, Jr., Assemblywoman Nancy J. Pinkin, Senate
Education Committee Chair M. Teresa Ruiz, the Joint Committee on Public Schools, New
Jersey School Boards Association, New Jersey Education Association, New Jersey Association
of School Administrators, New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, the Middlesex
County Board of Chosen Freeholders, and the Highland Park Borough Council.”

In addition to this, Montclair Township issued an official procedure for kids and families choosing to “opt-out”, or in more correct terms “refuse the test.” More and more families are going to be refusing to allow their kids to be subjected to these abusive and unnecessary tests - look to Long Island where 30,000 refused the ELA tests and 35,000 refused the math tests - so creating a district policy is going to be necessary very, very soon.

Another example is happening out in Delran, where the Delran Education Association released a letter to New Jersey legislators condemning all that is occurring in this state of education reform, in part stating:

“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.
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.
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.”  
Other boards of education have taken a stance on these issues that are changing the face of public education as we know it, but I have seen nothing from the South Brunswick Board of Education. There has been silence on the issues, the attitude that “we have to do what we have to do because the state says so,” and also the attitude that we should “wait and see” what happens with everything. Well, I’m not okay will waiting to see what happens. The kids in this community are not guinea pigs for the state, corporations, big businesses, and venture philanthropists to experiment on. There is absolutely no proof that Common Core is going to quote-un-quote “improve education,” “close the achievement gap,” or any of the other claims it makes to magically fix education with absolutely no evidence or proof of validity. There is absolutely no proof for the use of student standardized test scores being a valid way to measure “teacher effectiveness,” yet we’re moving full steam ahead with TEACHNJ and AchieveNJ which incorporates SGO’s and SGP’s as a large portion of a teacher’s evaluation. None of the changes in education happening today have been tested, retested, peer reviewed, tested again, and then slowly implemented in stages as anything else would be done in the business world where these reforms are coming from.

We need answers from this board and the state to all of the following questions:  
  1. In the last several years, has the district shifted resources away from non-tested subjects to focus on tested areas?
  2. How much does the district pay each year to administer standardized tests?
  3. How much does the district pay each year for test prep materials?
  4. How much will the district have to spend on technology to implement the PARCC exams?
  5. How much time is spent in district classrooms to prepare for and administer standardized tests?

South Brunswick is not alone in all of this, and it is time that we stand with the other brave districts in this state and fight against the state for what we believe is the best way to educate our students. Based off of endless research, it is clear that these reforms are not the answer to the issues we have in education that are mainly from outside sources - poverty, growing income inequality, dangerous environments in urban districts, slashed school funding that has caused a gross underfunding of our schools, unfunded mandates - the list goes on, and many of these reforms are only going to worsen the issues we already have. I would highly recommend to the board the creation of a task force to evaluate all of the changes that are happening, specifically to look at the overwhelming costs of these changes. South Brunswick up to this point may have been able to handle the costs of these changes without much hassle, but that does not excuse us from ignoring other districts around the state that are struggling beyond belief with these reforms. We cannot live in a bubble and pretend that these changes are not coming, and coming fast, with a lot of unintended consequences, many of which we are probably not even aware of yet. This task force should be made up of board members, community members, and teachers - and I’m sure there are plenty of community members and teachers who would be lining up to help get to the bottom of these reforms and their true costs. We cannot afford to wait and see any longer - it is time we stand up with the other communities and boards around this state, demand what we think and know is going to be best for our students, and start fighting back.

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