TRENTON - As a controversial new test has come under scrutiny in recent weeks from students, teachers, and parents across the state, Gov. Christie's education commissioner on Thursday defended it with an appeal to "social justice" for New Jersey's children.
During a two-hour legislative hearing, Education Commissioner David Hespe sought to quell concerns about the state's administration of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test.
Opponents worry that schools do not have sufficient resources to prepare students, that the test limits instructional time, and that it will have consequences for students who don't perform well.
The test, aligned with the equally controversial Common Core educational standards, rolled out this month for students in grades 3 through 11.
Hespe implored lawmakers and the public to wait for students to complete the test and allow the state to analyze the data before judging.
Such analysis is needed, Hespe said, to ensure that the state confronts a driving factor behind President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind law: that some students were "disappearing" in the country's education system.
"If these students disappear, we've created a social justice crisis in New Jersey, because our achievement gaps are just too big to ignore," Hespe told the Senate Education Committee.
He said half of the state's high school graduates are not academically prepared for college or the workforce, necessitating more rigorous standards.
Unlike some standardized tests that encouraged rote memorization, PARCC encourages students to think critically and apply their knowledge, Hespe said.
"Our goal is to prepare students for the future," he said.
In 2010, New Jersey, along with the vast majority of states, adopted Common Core, a set of grade-specific goals for K-12 students in English and math developed by the National Governors Association and education experts.
It then joined the PARCC consortium to develop a test aligned with the standards. Christie in 2013 declared that he and other governors were "leading the change" on Common Core.
Now preparing to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, Christie says he has "grave concerns" about the standards, which are unpopular among conservatives who fear federal encroachment on education.
But at a town hall-style meeting in Fair Lawn last week, Christie urged parents not to opt their children out of the PARCC test.
On Thursday, lawmakers criticized the Christie administration for what they described as a failure to explain the test's purpose to the public.
"Did you involve the parents and students at all?" Sen. Shirley Turner (D., Mercer) asked Hespe. "Students feel they're being put through a meat grinder by taking these tests."
He replied that the State Department had been trying to educate the public for months about the test, but said it was drowned out by misinformation.
Hespe noted that the New Jersey Education Association in February launched a TV and online advertising campaign against the test, though he didn't mention the union by name.
"We need to double down on [outreach], without a doubt," he said.
Turner and other lawmakers asked Hespe to explain what will happen to students who do not perform well.
PARCC test data should not be used as the "sole reason" for any placement decision, Hespe said. Rather, he said, the test provides teachers with "all the item analysis" needed to "understand why that child struggled."
"The focus should be on how to help that child learn," he said.
Sen. Jim Beach (D., Camden) questioned how the state could effectively implement the test when school districts are sending mixed signals about whether students can opt out.
"Not all superintendents have bought into this," he said.
Beach said he had received calls from teachers who think that "if their kids don't perform, they're going to lose their jobs," he said. "Perception is reality, let's face it."
Hespe said the student participation rate was "strong" but cautioned that he would not have precise figures until the test is completed in May.
Under federal law, 95 percent of students must take the test, Hespe said. If school districts short of that threshold, they could risk losing federal funding, he warned.
State law also requires assessments and ties them to teacher evaluations, he noted.
Julia Sass Rubin, a professor at Rutgers University and advocate with the Save Our Schools New Jersey coalition, said the funding threat was baseless.
Schools routinely fall below the 95 percent participation rate, she told reporters after the hearing.
"That has never been enforced," she said, adding it was unlikely the U.S. Department of Education would penalize New Jersey.
She also criticized the Senate panel's decision to take testimony only from the Christie administration.
"To hear only from the administration is rather stunning," she said. "There were no counter voices."
Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D., Essex), the panel's chair, said other groups may be invited to testify in the future. Asked by reporters about the anxiety with regard to PARCC, she said, "I think change is extraordinary for any individual. What we need to do right now is try to get as much information out as possible."