Sunday, May 6, 2012

Christie and Cerf: CLUELESS About Public Education

I've been spending a fair amount of my time thinking and reading about the proposals Acting Commissioner Cerf has put before the State Board of Education.  To date, the changes to high school testing requirements have gotten the most press attention, and the changes to the charter school regulations have taken a back seat.  I am sure this will change in the coming weeks, and if nothing else I certainly plan on addressing the proposed changes to charter school regulations in depth.  

Before I dive in, I want to take some time to look at what the recent proposals tell us about Governor Christie and his Department of Education.

NJ Spotlight had a great overview of how the new high school testing plan was presented to the press:

Christie on Monday unveiled a plan to replace the High School Proficiency Assessment -- students get three chances to pass it, beginning in the spring of junior year -- with end-of-course exams in language arts and math at the 9th, 10th and 11th grade levels. The HSPA only measures skills at an 8th grade level, the governor said. The state may also recommend science and social studies tests.

The next day, the DOE released data showing the percentage of 2011 graduates in each district who passed the HSPA, as well as those who were exempt from taking it and those who completed an alternate assessment. Statewide, 82.2 percent of graduates had passed the HSPA, while 14.3 percent had completed the alternate assessment and 3.5 percent were exempt from testing. (emphasis mine)

Their piece included a document that showed the percentage of vocational and charter school students that pass the HSPA.  I couldn't help but notice that Camden's LEAP Academy Charter School was on the list, and was blown away by what I saw.  

Some of you may remember I spent a bit of time looking into the "success" of LEAP Academy after I testified before the Assembly Education Committee hearing in February.  LEAP students were paraded before the committee as examples of how charter schools are the best (only?) hope for the students in places like Camden, and any semblance of local control would potentially destroy the "success" of the charter school movement.

LEAP Academy's biggest claim to fame is that they graduate 100% of their senior class.  This apparently has not changed, even with the new formula which has significantly changed the graduation rates for other districts and charters.  What doesn't seem to get any attention however is that apparently only 56.9% of those students can pass the HSPA, compared with 82.2% statewide, and that the other 43.1% graduate by taking the AHSA, by appeal or "other means".

The AHSA is a more open-ended exam than the HSPA, providing more time and performance-based formats for the language arts and math tests. It was first devised in the 1980s as an exam for those who struggle with the pressures of standardized testing.
But over the years, the exam – then known as the Special Review Assessment (SRA) -- became more the norm in some districts where failing rates on the HSPA were high, and it drew increasing criticism for being too easy to pass. Specifically, some said its looser time limits and scoring, often by the students’ own teachers, had led to a test almost impossible to fail.

NJ Spotlight had another great piece about how students feel about the idea of the changes to testing requirements.  They spoke with students in West Windsor Plainsboro, where Christie announced the new testing plan.  Here is what one student had to say about the HSPA:

Question: What’s your reaction to Christie’s announcement that the HSPA would be phased out as a high school test and replaced by end-of-year exams?
Jeffrey Yu, 18, senior, WWP South: “At West Windsor Plainsboro South, there hasn’t been a year when a kid didn’t pass the HSPA. It’s an easy test for our district. For myself, I definitely thought it was pretty easy.
“I wouldn’t say it’s eighth grade [level]. It had algebra, so I would say that is more 10th grade or high 9th. But look at all the other tests we are taking, the SAT, the ACTs, AP English or math, compared to them, it’s a piece of cake.”
I love that the Governor is being schooled by students that actually understand what skills are taught at what grade levels.  But most importantly, if the AHSA is "almost impossible to fail" and the Governor thinks the HSPA only measures 8th grade proficiency, what does that say about the graduation rate claims at LEAP and the education those graduates are actually receiving?

But yesterday was less about the details and more about the politics and promises, with Christie and Cerf finally putting some flesh on their longtime claims that New Jersey’s schools don’t demand enough of their students.
Today is about accountability,” Christie said. “We can’t go on at the level we are now, teaching to a test that is 8th grade level and telling them it is high school.” (emphasis mine)

Let's back that up a minute, Governor.  It's about accountability?  Are you for real?  

LEAP is being held up as a model of what charters can do for students, but only 56.9% of them can pass the test you say is at an 8th grade level!?!  Nonetheless, LEAP touts a 100% graduation rate and gets showered with praise from legislators, the Department of Education, and the NJ Charter Schools Association and endowed with new facilities to the tune of 12.5 million.  And not only that, they use their graduation rate as a club to beat the Camden Public Schools, the schools that actually have to try to teach the ESL and LEP students LEAP doesn't seem to serve.  

So much for accountability...

Then this morning there was an amazing opinion piece in the Asbury Park Press that nailed the problem right on the head.

Christie says too many graduates leave high school unprepared for their next step, and that these changes are aimed at correcting that.

We can’t argue with that. But the way to accomplish that isn’t by simply ratcheting up the demands and waiting to see how it all shakes out.

Raising the bar is a wonderful concept unless it’s being used primarily as a weapon to exclude more people from reaching a certain level of achievement. If Christie simply wants to chop the graduation rates down a few notches and leave more students without diplomas, that’s an irresponsible approach to reform.

Christie’s ongoing disdain for the quality of public education in New Jersey remains one of his biggest failings as governor. While there has always been some merit behind his criticisms of the teachers union, his attacks have extended far beyond legitimate gripes.

The overriding impression is that the governor would gladly replace the current system with a network of charter schools and private-tinged ventures, this despite the fact that the vast majority of the state’s school districts have been, and continue to be, highly successful. (emphasis mine)

And then there's the NJDOE's "secret proposal" that became public this week for the Camden Public School District.  It calls for the closure of ten traditional public and three charter schools.  While Christie says he has "no plans to enact the DOE scenario" the document is a clear example of Christie and Cerf's leadership style, which was perfectly explained by Diane Ravitch yesterday.

In fact, what the document shows is a Department of Education that does not know how to help public schools, that doesn’t believe in helping public schools. It shows leaders who are clueless about education. The plan begins by saying that asking how to improve the schools is the wrong question. That’s old-style thinking. 

As usual, Dr. Ravitch nails it.  The only thing the education policies and proposals of the Christie administration and Acting Commissioner Cerf's NJDOE demonstrate, including their proposed changes to high school testing requirements, is that they don't believe in actually helping public schools.  In fact, they are clueless about education.  

1 comment:

  1. Dear Madam,
    You are exceptionally well informed. As a one-time advocate of the theoretical framework behind a few charter schools in the mid-1990s, I have come to realize through my own research and practical work in K-12 and in higher education that they have become, particularly in New Jersey, unchecked cogs in political machines. Virtually no one of ethics or virtue oversees them in New Jersey, and this is a disgrace as they should operate with the same regulations, oversight, and transparency required of any publically funded school. I know first-hand certain charter schools hire, promote, and fire educators without any regard to the law. Students are sometimes selected based on "weeding out" practices and/or athletic prowess. Keep fighting the good fight for regular and magnet public schools. Thank you.