N.J. Increasing Tests for Students

March 5, 2013

 New Jersey students will spend eight or nine hours on annual state tests starting in the 2014-15 school year – roughly three more hours per year than current tests require, according to guidance released by the state on Tuesday.

State officials say these new, online tests will help teachers better understand students’ needs. Some parents and educators, however, worry the new tests will drain more instructional time and increase pressure to “teach to the test,” especially at a time when teachers’ evaluations will be linked in part to their students’ progress on tests.

Third-graders, for example, now spend roughly five hours, spread over four days, on the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge or NJ ASK tests. The new exams will take eight hours, but will be split among nine short sessions.

In Grades 4 and above, the new tests will take nine and a half hours total — over nine sessions — up from about six hours now. Some sections will take place after three-quarters of the school year is over, and other sections at the end of the year.

The new tests for math and language arts are being developed by a 22-state, federally-funded consortium known as PARCC, or the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. The tests are supposed to reflect what students must learn by each grade according to a new set of voluntary national standards called the Common Core. These standards, put in place this year, aim to be more coherent, clear and rigorous than many states had before.

The consortium released some details on the coming tests Tuesday. Bari Ehrlichson, assistant commissioner for the state Department of Education, said she was “very excited” about the new tests’ improved sophistication, which will be enhanced by technology. For example, a third-grader could be asked to click and drag the fraction “one-half” to its spot on a number line, rather than filling in a bubble on a multiple choice question. The child would type responses to writing prompts, which might spur schools to teach second-graders to use keyboards.

Some district chiefs, however, questioned whether the tests would dominate their schools’ computers during test days. The state is now surveying districts to see if they expect to have enough computers and bandwidth. The consortium recommends that a school with 100 students in its largest grade have at least 50 devices: half the students could take the test in the morning, half in the afternoon.

Daniel Fishbein, superintendent in Ridgewood, said he was optimistic the new assessments would be “quality tests” but he predicted a “big challenge” administering them. Due to budget cuts, Ridgewood uses online programs for foreign languages, for example, so some classes might not have access to technology on testing days.

Some parents complain standardized testing eats up too much time already.

Jean McTavish, a Ridgewood parent and principal of a New York City high school, said mass produced tests don’t truly measure students’ comprehension, and timed essays promote formulaic writing. Such tests are “just such a huge violation of what professionals understand about teaching and learning,” she said.