Possibility of compromise slows action on Common Core

Posted: July 06, 2014

Gov. Christie as Henry Clay? Next week may tell.

Based on the likelihood of a Christie veto, and his recent hint that a compromise might be on the way, the state Senate has held off on a final vote on a bill that would create a task force to review the impacts of the Common Core State Standards in language arts and math, and the potential impact of the new online Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), which is set for statewide rollout this coming school year.

The bill would also prevent using PARCC results to hold students and schools accountable for up to two years, and delay any consequences for teachers in their evaluations for the same time period.

An identical bill already sailed through the Assembly, getting 72 of 80 votes.

New Jersey is one of a relatively small but growing number of states at least considering a slowdown of using a high-stakes test linked to the Common Core to judge students, schools and teachers. Indiana, South Carolina, and Oklahoma have decided to drop out of Common Core, and others are considering it.

Supporters of Common Core's added rigor and the new tests say change is needed to prepare more students for higher education and the modern workplace. State education officials have spoken out against not moving ahead.

While it is widely believed that Christie would veto the pending task force and moratorium legislation, he held out the possibility of a compromise while speaking at a June 25 town hall meeting in Haddon Heights. Legislators decided to hold off voting to give that compromise a chance to take shape. In Haddon Heights, Christie had said he would probably have something to announce in seven to 10 days. Last week, acting Education Commissioner David Hespe was away.

Legislators have said relief could come in a number of forms, including an executive order or regulatory change. Some say action could come Wednesday when the state Board of Education meets.

State Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D., Cape May), one of the bill's sponsors, said it could still be voted on as soon as Thursday, when the Legislature meets again, if Christie fails to act or the compromise is not acceptable.

Still, Van Drew said, something that would address at least some concerns is preferable to a vetoed bill.

"Half a loaf is better than no loaf," Van Drew said. "A quarter-loaf is better than no loaf."

Nevertheless, Van Drew said he hopes that whatever solution is reached includes a study component for both Common Core and PARCC, innovations he said are so far unproven.

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Teresa Ruiz (D., Essex), also involved in the talks that have been going on back and forth with the administration and other stakeholders, said she would like to see that expanded to looking at all standardized tests.

Both Ruiz and Van Drew said one option under discussion is to lessen the percentage that student PARCC performance will count in teacher evaluations.

The PARCC exams will be administered to about 900,000 students in grades three through eight and 11. They stand to figure in the evaluations of between 15 and 20 of the state's public school teachers, according to a state Education Department spokesman.

As of last school year, student progress calculations made up 30 percent of an evaluation for instructors who teach subjects in which standardized tests are given. Teachers of subjects were evaluated based on "student progress objectives" reached - measures often worked out between teachers and administration, according to an Education Department spokesman.

If student progress is given less weight, there is still an issue of how long that should last, Ruiz said.

The Senate bill calls for a two-year moratorium on using PARCC results in teacher evaluations. Ruiz noted that in a recent hearing, Bari Erlichson, an assistant education commissioner, said such action could violate the terms of the state's federal waiver on No Child Left Behind requirements and risk the possibility of sanction.

While censure is possible, the federal Department of Education has shown a willingness to be flexible with states that have been making progress on their evaluations systems. Recently, New York announced a two-year reprieve for teachers whose students score poorly on Common Core-aligned tests. Federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan applauded the compromise.

Leaders of grassroots Save Our Schools NJ, a pro-public school group whose members have sent almost 11,000 e-mails and letters in support of the legislation, said any study period or reprieve from PARCC's impact should also extend to schools and students. For the state's high school Class of 2019, the exams will be a graduation requirement.

The organization's 21,000 members support the bill "because it would stop the punishment of high-stakes testing and credit a transparent, thoughtful process of statewide public hearings and a task force staffed by independent experts to examine these critical issues," said Susan Cauldwell, a group leader.

The task force that would be created through the bill would also look at the costs of implementing Common Core and PARCC as well as alternatives to high-stakes tests.

While the need for change nationally and regionally has passionate supporters, citing the United States' falling education ranking globally, the call for going slower and taking a studied approach is strong too.

Recently the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a strong Common Core advocate, said the new tests' results should not figure in teacher evaluations or student promotions for two years. Drew noted that his bill drew a range of support - liberal Democrats as well as conservative Republicans.

Last week, at a news conference urging that the bill be put to a vote, Save Our Schools NJ members stood with the Eagle Forum, a conservative group opposed to Common Core and the new testing, as well as tea party members.

Said Save Our Schools NJ's Cauldwell: "These tests are being used to hurt our children, our teachers, and our public schools, and that has to stop."


rgiordano@phillynews.com

856-779-3893 @ritagiordano

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