New Jersey is one of 45 states moving toward Common Core standards, along with new testing that is being developed through a national consortium. The standards are advertised as providing more depth and rigor to existing state standards, which vary across the country.
Participating states are required to start the transition to the Common Core this year in both their curriculum development and testing.
"This will definitely be a transition," Penny MacCormack, the state's assistant commissioner, said of the curriculum and testing changes she is overseeing. "The new standards are definitely different."
The state's work being shared with districts has been in the elementary and middle schools. Administration officials have been mostly silent about their plans for high school, tossing out a few hints about replacing the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) but only saying a full announcement will come this month. The last HSPA was administered in March.
Of the younger students, who will take NJASK in May, MacCormack said in an interview this week that the intention of the field testing was to see how the students fare and what needed to be addressed, including in the test itself.
"That's why you field-test," she said. "Some questions may not be ready for prime time."
At the same time, MacCormack's office is starting to roll out a model curriculum it is developing to assist districts in aligning their own teaching. While voluntary for most districts, the curriculum could be ordered for the lowest-performing schools and districts under the administration's new accountability system.
The first of the math curriculums will be posted by the state department for educators to review by the end of the month, MacCormack said.
The math as well as language arts curriculum will be separated into five six-week teaching units for every grade, all of which will be available by this summer, she said.
Each unit will also come with student assessments that teachers can use, those starting to be rolled out this summer in time for the next school year.
MacCormack said the model-curriculum development has involved scores of teachers and supervisors, with the assistant commissioner serving as the final editor. She said the feedback would be invaluable in developing it further.
"This is the first round: Model Curriculum 1.0," MacCormack said of the first units. "Folks in the field are eager to now have this kind of give-and-take exchange."
State officials have been less forthcoming about what will happen with high schools and the state's existing exams, currently required for graduation.
The Common Core standards include high school grades as well, but state officials have not said how - or if - the state's current High School Proficiency Assessment will transition in the next two years. It tests 11th and 12th graders in math and language arts.
Acting Commissioner Chris Cerf has said he wants to move to specific subject exams, and Gov. Christie's proposed budget includes $1.7 million to start the change to five end-of-course exams.
The state has provided no further details, and it has been a long-running source of tension with some critics, including the Education Law Center, the advocacy group that has led the Abbott v. Burke litigation.
Stan Karp, a center program director, said the state's silence had left countless students and their schools in limbo on a test that students will need to graduate. That is especially problematic in urban districts where the numbers of those at risk are considerably higher.
There is an alternative test for those who now fail the HSPA, but its fate is also uncertain.
This week, Karp released an undated draft report from the department's assessment director, Jeffrey Hauger, indicating this would be the last year for the HSPA.
"The only certainty is that after 2012, we will not have a high school assessment," Hauger said in the report, which the center received through a public records request.
Karp also released a letter he sent to Cerf this week with a list of questions regarding the fate of the exams, including whether there would be field tests to prepare students before the exams are required.
Justin Barra, the department's communications director, this week said they were "legitimate and valid questions, and we will address them in short order."
That hasn't squelched the criticism. Eric Milou, a Rowan University math professor who leads a coalition of math and science educators, said the state was asking for trouble.
"Quite frankly it is ridiculous that the state has not informed districts about their high school assessment plans for 2012-13 and beyond," said Milou, director of the New Jersey Math and Science Coalition.
"Current ninth- and 10th-grade students and teachers throughout the state have no idea how to prepare their students for their graduation assessment," he said. "Lawsuits from students are all but certain due to the lack of information from DOE."
Read more education stories by John Mooney at njspotlight.com.