Lawmakers hear plea for fewer standardized tests in school

By: - December 7, 2022 7:01 am

Advocates urged state education officials to reduce standardized tests — especially one measuring the pandemic's effect on education and high school exit exams. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

School superintendents, education advocates, and lawmakers urged state education officials to reduce standardized student assessments during a legislative hearing Tuesday.

Education advocates have long called on state education officials to cut assessments, which Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration says are necessary barometers of the state’s progress in closing achievement gaps.

Reformers repeated their pleas for mercy again Tuesday during a meeting of the Legislature’s joint committee on the public schools, singling out two tests as particularly onerous: exit exams high school seniors must pass to graduate and Start Strong, an assessment now in its third year intended to measure students’ academic standing after pandemic disruptions.

Julie Larrea Borst, executive director of Save Our Schools New Jersey, said New Jersey’s disruptive “testing regime” reduces teaching time and does nothing to improve student performance.

“We’re taking four extra tests in high school that are not federally required. What would that money do directly supporting students? We’re talking about millions of dollars here,” Borst said. “There has been no leadership on assessment in New Jersey. We just keep doing more, so somehow ‘more, harder, longer’ equals ‘better’ in some people’s minds. And I am here to tell you that that’s not true.”

Students of color, English language learners, and students with disabilities struggle more with standardized tests and so tend to score lower, which makes excessive testing especially concerning, advocates said.

“That is the definition of structural and systemic racism,” said Deborah Cornavaca, director of government relations at the New Jersey Education Association. “And we should not be allowed to perpetuate that in an educational system that we collectively know needs to strive towards justice and equity and closing of the gaps. We do not need further use of assessments to demonstrate it is a socioeconomic, zip code issue more than it is the student’s knowledge and potential of future growth and success.”

New Jersey subjects students to more standardized tests than federal law requires and is one of just 11 states nationally that requires an exit exam to graduate, critics said.

Tuesday’s hearing came one day before the State Board of Education’s monthly public meeting, when officials will report the results of last spring’s standardized learning assessments.

Representatives from the board and the Department of Education were missing from the hearing, and department spokespeople did not respond to a request for comment.

These kids need help. They don't need more tests.

– Assemblyman Ralph Caputo

Some lawmakers agreed with witnesses who said New Jersey subjects students to too many tests.

Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Essex), a committee member, accused the Board of Education of “educational malpractice” and described excessive assessments as child abuse. Too many tests drive teachers to quit, contributing to an ongoing teacher shortage, he charged.

“Our teachers are leaving the system because they can’t deal with the pressure and the trauma of trying to educate kids under these conditions,” Caputo said. “We don’t need another stress level. These kids need help. They don’t need more tests.”

Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth), another committee member, echoed the call for fewer, more effective assessments, saying it seems the only people in New Jersey who believe more testing is better “are a handful of folks at the Department of Education.”

State officials suspended the high school exit exam in recent years but last spring adopted a new New Jersey Graduation Proficiency Assessment with higher passing scores. Legislators intervened, and Murphy signed a law last summer that made the new assessment a “field test,” meaning students must take it but aren’t required to pass it to graduate.

Three Assembly Democrats — Caputo, Mila Jasey of Essex County, and Angela McKnight of Hudson County — introduced a bill in September to eliminate the test, but it hasn’t moved out of committee in either chamber.

New Jersey began requiring students to prove competency on exit exams 40 years ago in order to graduate, even if they’ve completed all course, attendance, and other graduation requirements, said Stan Karp of the Education Law Center.

Yet such tests “don’t reliably measure what they pretend to measure — academic ability, college readiness, mastery of standards,” Karp said. “And they don’t measure the qualities we all want high school graduates to have — responsibility, resilience, critical thinking, empathy.”

Karp estimated 2,000 to 3,000 students are “lost” each year because they don’t pass the exit exam.

Extra testing for high school graduation is “a failed policy that doesn’t help the students who pass and hurts the students who don’t,” Karp added.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.