We are all familiar with the adage, “You cannot fatten a pig by merely weighing it.” Despite this, policymakers in our state and throughout the country insist on focusing their energies on increased standardized testing. Their common, yet misguided, argument is that standardized tests are the primary means of uncovering achievement gaps and enhancing equity for historically marginalized populations. However, standardized assessment does not enhance equity; it reinforces inequity.
Equality assumes that everyone benefits from the same supports, while equity provides everyone with the support that they need to succeed. Our current statewide assessment system does not allow for districts or educators to provide our students with these supports. Instead, the state allocates over $30 million a year on testing, a significant portion of which is dedicated to unnecessary testing at the high school level.
Standardized assessment does not enhance equity; it reinforces inequity.
New Jersey’s current statewide assessment system goes far beyond the federal requirements for testing under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). While ESSA requires annual testing in math and English/language arts for grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, New Jersey’s Administrative Code (N.J.A. C. 6A:8 Standards and Assessment) currently requires students to be tested in grades 9, 10 and 11.
Beyond these increased requirements, students are subjected to countless hours of testing across grades 3 through 11. In the 2017-18 school year, New Jersey’s students engaged in 73.5 hours of statewide standardized testing across grades 3-11. This equates to 98 forty-five-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.
Midway through the 2018-19 school year, the New Jersey Department of Education reduced testing timeframes by approximately 25%, resulting in 57.5 hours of testing across grades 3-11. With this reduction, the state of New Jersey still requires more statewide standardized testing than any other state in the nation.
Dr. Arthur VanderVeen, CEO of New Meridian, the company that is contracted by the state of New Jersey to license our New Jersey Student Learning Assessment (NJSLA, formerly known as the PARCC) urged the State Board of Education members to shift their focus away from testing.
“The more important indicator of post-secondary readiness is the curriculum and not the assessment,” VanderVeen told the board. “States should be focusing on ensuring a rigorous sequence of courses instead of focusing on an assessment.”
Dr. VanderVeen’s company profits heavily from New Jersey’s statewide assessment system and a reduction in testing would significantly reduce his bottom line. Yet, even he urges the state to focus their energies elsewhere.
Proponents of increased testing argue that without yearly assessments, we will have no gauge as to whether students are career and college ready. As educators, we know this to be false. State regulations provide an overview of the requirements for students to graduate. Students are required to take and pass 120 credits worth of coursework, demonstrate performance on locally designed and administered assessments, and meet attendance standards. Districts can independently add on to these requirements as well.
When pro-testing parties argue that standardized testing indicates whether or not students are ready for college and career, those steeped in the research and practice know that this is an ill-informed misconception with significant consequences for our students. There is no research basis in the claim that PARCC/NJSLA will help reduce the common concern that too many students are not college ready and require remedial course work. Nor is there research that shows PARCC/NJSLA performance is a predictor of future success.
There is, however, research that confirms that a student’s transcript (high school grades) is what makes a high school diploma truly meaningful and gives the most accurate picture of a student’s readiness for college and career. (See FairTest, 2009. “High School Grades Better Predictors of College Graduation.” FairTest Examiner. See also Hiss, William, 2014. “Defining Promise: Optional Standardized Testing Policies in American College and University Admissions.”)
If we truly want to ensure that our students are career and college ready, we must create a system that cultivates the knowledge, skills and understanding students need to be successful in life beyond high school. Passing a standardized assessment does not indicate whether or not one will be successful in any given career. What successful performance on statewide standardized assessment does indicate is a reflection of the income levels of the community in which a student resides.
It’s time for the state of New Jersey to provide students and schools across our wonderfully diverse state with the supports that we need to thrive. By reducing statewide standardized testing, we can put the emphasis back on teaching and learning and reallocate a significant portion of the statewide assessment budget to provide social, emotional, and community-based supports to our students. If we truly want to enhance equity for our students and increase our standards, our policies and practices must match our words.