Among the recent outbreak of concerns from parents and educators that new state tests in New Jersey will not benefit students, the top education official in the state said defended testing, saying the tests will raise student achievement, particularly among disadvantaged groups.
In front of the Senate Education Committee, Education Commissioner David Hespe referred to the exams as a "social justice" measure while answering questions with regards to confusion over the test, opting out of participating in the exam, and communication problems that have cropped up during their implementation.
Hespe insisted that all of these issues would resolve themselves once parents and teachers learn more about the exams, including how they will help to increase performance at schools and to close achievement gaps.
"We owe it to our children to do better," Hespe said. "Not just some children, but all of them. A high-quality educational opportunity must be available to all."
Critics of testing, including parent activists and the largest teachers union in the state, have begun to hold protests arguing that the additional testing is costing schools too much time and money, and is doing more to hurt students than to help them. They argue that schools in the state already hold high standards and that it should be left to individual districts to decide upon the education agenda.
Despite this argument, Hespe contends that students in all districts will benefit from the tests, not just those in urban areas. "There is a misconception that the most vulnerable — special education students and English language learners — are only in urban areas," Hespe said. "They're in every school in the state."
The federal Common Core standards were adopted by the state five years ago, with the addition of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers exams (PARCC) coming this year.
The tests are taken in grades 3 through 11, replacing other exams previously used that education officials say did not offer useful classroom data. However, critics feel the tests are confusing and take too much time, causing a push to boycott the exams.
While there is currently no official data available concerning how many students in the state are skipping out on the exam, an activist was able to discover that over 2,000 students were opting out in the Philadelphia suburb of Cherry Hill using open-record laws. While the majority of younger students are participating, almost 75% of 11th graders are choosing to skip the test.
Hespe said that the problem with that is that the federal regulations implemented over a decade ago require 95% of the students in each school to take the test, including 95% in each subgroup, including students with disabilities, low-income students and students in various racial groups.