Education Law Center Files Complaint about DOE Bureaucracy; Can We Talk About Kids?

The members of New Jersey’s “review” of the Common Core State Standards are faced with a thankless task: fussing over highly-regarded academic standards that were successfully implemented in all the state’s public schools five years ago simply because this past summer Gov. Christie, in a desperate attempt to revive a dead presidential campaign, announced that the standards “weren’t working.”

NJ Spotlight reports today on the composition of the task force, which includes twenty-four people plus another seventy on subcommittees.

Here’s Emil Carafa, past president of N.J. Principal and Supervisors Association, member of the Education Leaders Cadre, and principal of Lodi High School:
 “I think [the standards] are fine as they are, and I’ll bring that perspective."
Some of the reviewers quoted in the Spotlight piece note that there is always room for improvement, especially if the standards are not “rigorous” enough. This may be bad news to  Education Law Center, which earlier this month filed a complaint with Ed. Commissioner Dave Hespe  claiming that N.J. failed on procedural grounds to properly change high school graduation requirements.

 According to DOE memos, students can fulfill high school qualification exam requirements by  passing CCSS-aligned tests or, instead, submitting SAT or ACT scores that signify proficiency. (That would be 400 in math and reading on the SAT and 16 in both section on the ACT. Students can also submit scores from Accuplacer.) But ELC argues that the DOE “has imposed, and continues to impose, new graduation requirements through various memoranda” instead of through “regulations duly proposed and adopted…”

What’s ELC’s real beef? In the past, large numbers of  N.J. students stuck in low-performing districts  failed N.J.’s former high school graduation qualifying exams (the HSPA’s, which are far easier than PARCC), but then received diplomas by passing alternative exams. Under the new rules, students who can’t make the cut-off on PARCC, the SAT, or ACT, can file for a “portfolio appeal.” But ELC fears that upgraded tests will lead to higher numbers of students failing to meet high school graduation requirements.

For example, the latest data available from the N.J. Department of Education shows that at Camden High School only 19% of students passed the HSPA tests in math and language arts. Forty-nine percent relied on an alternative test, and 31.7% were labeled “exempt,” which corresponds with Camden High’s unrealistically high number of students who qualify for special education services. Average scores on the SAT’s, for the 32% of students who took them, were 325 in critical reading and 352 in math, far below the DOE’s cut-off.

At Asbury Park High School, 49% of students passed the HSPA, 28.4% took the alternative test, and 22.4% were exempt. Among the 62% of students taking the SAT’s, average scores were 342 in critical reading and 363 in math. (All this for $28,229 per student per year.)

The problem isn’t PARCC or the DOE’s casual memoranda-based changes. The problem is that students in districts like Camden and Asbury Park don’t have access to effective educational delivery services.

This lack of equity, in fact, is the raison d’etre of ELC’s Abbott school funding cases, which argued that students in 31 poor N.J. urban districts have been academically thwarted by a zip-code-based enrollment and funding system.  Now, however, ELC’s impetus has shifted from meaningful discussions of segregation and its impact on students to the minutiae of paperwork.

ELC's  preoccupation with trivia may simply be the nature of litigation, a necessary boondoggle.  I get that. But ELC's complaint favors trivia over substance. We should be talking about student growth and achievement, not about bureaucratic processes.

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