When parents whose children want to go to college think about prospective schools, a lot of factors come into play. Once they think beyond “What is this going to cost me?” and “How deep in debt will my child be four years from now?” other questions come to mind: What will be the outcome of my child going to that school? What kind of reputation does it have? How far away is it? Will my child be safe? Will they be happy? Will they be able to get a good paying job after they graduate?
Few, if any, parents ask, “What battery of tests does the school administer to be sure my child will be ready to graduate from this university?”
Colleges and universities, for their part, are anxious to prove that graduates from their schools are ready to, as Harvard puts it, “…consider how they will best use their liberal arts and sciences educations, and their lives, in the service of both knowledge and humanity.”
Closer to home, Princeton University’s graduation requirements to earn a degree in chemistry or engineering do not include hours of testing before students may “walk” at graduation. Instead they focus on the students’ academic experience: the foundational courses required of all engineering students, a “signature Chemical, Biology and Engineering (CBE) Core,” an area of concentration for electives, and a year-long independent research project, known as the senior thesis, advised by a member of the CBE or affiliated faculty.
The most important indicator of post-secondary readiness is the curriculum and not the assessment.
In other words, Princeton University promotes its challenging curricula and a performance assessment that is completed with the support of a faculty advisor.
Princeton’s reputation comes from the rich academic experience it offers its students, not from what tests it administers.
That path to graduation fits well with what Dr. Arthur VanderVeen, the president and CEO of New Meridian, said in his presentation on standardized testing to the New Jersey State Board of Education last July.
“The most important indicator of post-secondary readiness is the curriculum and not the assessment,” VanderVeen said. “States should be focusing on ensuring a rigorous sequence of courses instead of focusing on an assessment.”
Given that New Meridian’s business is selling assessments, and that selling more assessments would be in the interest of New Meridian’s bottom line, that’s a powerful statement.
On May 14, NJEA President Marie Blistan and NJEA Professional Development and Instructional Issues Associate Director Christine Miles testified before the Joint Committee on the Public Schools as it met to consider statewide standardized assessments and the use of such tests as a graduation requirement.
“Requiring a child to pass a statewide standardized test to graduate high school does not work,” Blistan told the committee. “Tests inform learning. Tests should not be a barrier to a child’s continued education.”
Miles presented a reality of standardized testing that strays far from the ideals implied in VanderVeen’s quote. She noted that in the 2017-18 school year, students across grades 3-11 spent a minimum of 73.5 hours taking the PARCC/NJ Student Learning Assessment.
“That equates to 98, 45-minute class periods of lost learning opportunities over a student’s academic career, or three-years-worth of a once-per-week elective period where students could be cultivating their knowledge, skills, understanding and competency in a vocation, trade or area of passion,” Miles said. “Imagine the value and power of dedicating this time to developing the skills needed for your current career.”
All of this is not to say that testing isn’t important. Princeton University professors certainly administer challenging assessments, but so do elementary educators in Jersey City, proportionate, of course, to the age of their students. Standards-based, performance-driven assessments are one of the foundational tenets of successful classroom instruction.
Statewide assessments are important as well. We must ensure all children who attend New Jersey’s public schools have fair and just access to academic and career opportunities regardless of their ZIP code. Assessments can help determine what resources are needed to help students reach their full potential. Instead, our current statewide assessment system labels children at a very early age as a success or a failure. That categorization can dramatically alter the trajectory not only of a child’s academic future but the course of the student’s entire life.
As the Legislature and the State Board of Education consider future testing and graduation requirements, they should be careful to place testing in its proper place: behind curriculum. A series of tests should never be the final word on whether a student has earned the right to graduate. Only 11 states require an exit test for high school graduation—it’s time for New Jersey to join the other 39 states that do not.