Thursday, July 10, 2014

NJ BOE Testimony Part II: Was human error or intentional omission to blame for PARCC pilot report?

Be sure to check out Parts I and III in this series.

In part 2 of this series of posts on NJEA's July 9th lobby day at the state Board of Ed, Spanish teacher and education activist, Heidi Maria Brown, questions Data Commissioner Bari Erlichson's obvious omission of any negative feedback on the state's PARCC trials, and why some board members have not done more to get to the truth.


Good afternoon. My name is Heidi Maria Brown. I’m here today with my family. My husband is helping me with our two boys, Johnny and Nicholas, both of whom attend the amazing public schools in Pitman, New Jersey. We came here today despite the fact that following testimony, we have a wake to attend and a funeral tomorrow. That is how important I feel this opportunity is.

Throughout the past school year, I attended three board of education meetings. Initially, the experience was very positive. However, over time, it became quite discouraging because it appears that my testimony has fallen on deaf ears.

I recently met with my legislative representative, Assemblyman Paul Moriarity (D4 – Camden, Gloucester). When I first spoke with Mr. Moriarity, he mentioned that some of my concerns could be explained by human error. I concurred that perhaps one or even two misstatements could be explained by human foil. However, the number and type of misstatements are worrisome considering that the Department of Education is also responsible for determining test scores and teacher evaluations.

At the May 7th BOE meeting, Data Commissioner Bari Erlichson evidently misspoke with regards to the number of hours students spend testing. Students test for four days, not one. And many of our students with IEPs and 504s test for about six hours a day, not two. That means that contrary to her statement, students were in testing anywhere from eight hours to as many as 24 hours. What will this mean for our students when they take the PARCC, which is a much longer test? Has anyone considered this? If the BOE doesn’t have an accurate understanding of testing conditions, due to misinformation, how can they properly serve our students? Again, this may have simply been a misstatement. So let’s look at another example.

Erlichson made statements and provided evidence regarding the success of the first PARCC pilot. When presenting social media clips regarding the public feedback, she presented 100% positive feedback. I found this surprising because I had spoken with several teachers in various districts who confirmed that the computers froze and the testing was problematic from a technology perspective. Several parents also posted negative feedback on Facebook regarding testing and the PARCC, but I saw no evidence of this in her report. Board member Edithe Fulton immediately questioned the lack of negative comments. The response to Ms. Fulton was that this was due to the “abbreviated” board session. Does that justify incomplete and allegedly misleading and one-side data presentation? Perhaps this omission was simply “human error”.

Furthermore, while the statement was made that 70 percent of districts piloted, it should be noted that only 10 percent of students within those districts were actually tested. This means that we really don’t have an accurate picture of what full implementation will mean for this fall. This method of cherry picking data to provide evidence seems to be more than a misstatement.

During this same board meeting, Erlichson depicted a doom and gloom report of New Jersey’s NAEP scores. Apparently, our growth was, “flat”. Later, after reviewing the results independently, I was surprised to see that New Jersey’s 8th graders are first in reading and second in math. Why was so little made of this success? Was this omission just a mistake?

Frankly, I’m beginning to wonder how accurately informed the board of education is, not to mention your level of engagement in terms of asking critical questions when questionable data is provided as truth. At the June 4th and 11th public hearings to examine the CCSS, only one board member, Joseph Fisicaro, attended. Why? I work two, sometimes three jobs, I have two little boys and I volunteer in my local township. I still found time to review the standards, draft feedback and give professional analysis of the World Language standards. Nobody had to pay me to show up. I did it, because I care.

During the past five months, I have witnessed enough testimony here at the BOE, at several legislative meetings, and throughout New Jersey, to know that there are serious problems with the implementation of the teacher evaluation, the PARCC testing and the leadership of our struggling, economically challenged districts like Newark, where under Cami Anderson’s deplorable leadership, the district spent $330,000 on take-out instead of school supplies, maintenance needs, technology upgrades, classroom teachers and aides. It was reported by NBC news that students will not have enough desks this year and teachers will have to take a pay freeze because Ms. Anderson felt it was appropriate to spent $22,000 a month for catering. I guess the chicken and sides must be good. But I digress.

In March, I witnessed the delivery of nearly 2,000 letters to the Board of Education from teachers, parents, and community members, imploring you to address these concerns. In May, despite the conflict of NJASK testing, several teachers reported similar concerns to the board. In June nearly 30,000 NJEA members participated in a town hall conference call with Senate President Steve Sweeney to discuss these concerns. But you don’t have to listen to me or my colleagues. All you have to do is read the paper, go online or watch the television to know that there is a real crisis - not with our schools - but with these un-vetted reforms being rushed to implementation.

And since it’s evident that many misstatements have allegedly been made due to human error, we need you to listen to us. The truth is we don’t really know if we’re ready for the technology demands of the PARCC. We don’t know how much this has cost or how much it will cost in the future. We don’t know that the data management system is secure or who will have access to our children’s personal, and legally protected data. The fact that Assembly Bill 3081 passed 72-4, and that the sister bill is to be posted for a senate vote tomorrow*, makes it clear that this process is not going well and we are not ready. (emphasis mine)

So, do what you need to do. I will follow my conscience and follow up with Assemblyman Moriarty. Because based on the information I provided, he agreed that there seems to be more than just, “human error” at play. I will continue to write letters to the editor and educate my community about opting out of the PARCC, a new NEA initiative, and we’ll just wait to see how this turns out. Ultimately, I will be able to sleep at night with a clear conscience.

Heidi Maria Brown has an MFA in theatre from Temple University and a BA in Spanish from Western Washington University. She has 10 years experience teaching in public schools and 9 years as an adjunct professor. She currently teaches Spanish in the Pittsgrove Township School District in Salem County, NJ.

* Note: As of this writing, it is not clear if S2154 will be posted for a full Senate vote. For all the breaking developments, be sure to follow Save Our Schools NJ on Facebook and Twitter.