NJDOE News


COMMISSIONER DAVID HESPE PRESS CONFERENCE
OPENING STATEMENT

Last spring, the 4th and 8th grade public school students of New Jersey took a first step toward assuring their future in the 21st Century.

In classrooms throughout this state, these young pioneers reached for a new, higher standard of excellence in education. They went through the tougher new statewide standardized tests, the results of which will enable their teachers, their parents and their communities to guide them toward the enhanced skills they will need in the more demanding world they will inherit.

New Jersey has raised the bar on school performance for one simple reason: we are determined that our schools will remain the finest in America. Thanks to gifted teachers, dedicated administrators, committed school boards and caring parents, our students are preparing to successfully meet the much tougher demands of a new millennium. I believe our schools are the reason why per capita income in New Jersey is now second among all 50 states. Unemployment levels are among the lowest in the nation. Our quality of life is the envy of all Americans. New Jersey’s investment in its schools is paying off handsomely.

Why then, you ask, need we strive for ever-higher levels of education achievement? Why need we ask our students to know more about more subjects? Why must they master topics and tools unheard of in their parents’ school days?

Because the world is changing with dizzying speed. Young people, more than ever before in the history of our nation, are faced with a stark choice: either master science, math, the language arts and workplace skills, or fall hopelessly behind in their quest for a bountiful life. All of society understands how dramatically the stakes have risen. Nationwide polls – indeed, worldwide polls – show that over 70% of respondents support higher expectations for their children. It is a Darwinian world out there, and we in the education community must help New Jersey students survive and thrive in this new world.

In 1996, New Jersey enacted the Comprehensive Education Improvement and Financing Act, which reflected a broad consensus in our state that students must be challenged by ever more rigorous standards and assessments. The Act ties school funding to standards that define what the New Jersey Constitution means by a "thorough and efficient education." These standards are detailed academic goals in math, science, world languages, social studies, language arts literacy, health and physical education, visual and performing arts, as well as workplace readiness skills. The tests will be phased in by 2002 and are linked directly to Core Curriculum Content Standards in these subjects.

We have no choice. All of us who daily see stunning breakthroughs in medicine, technology, commerce and culture, know the world is becoming a very different place. Those who are prepared will enjoy the wonders of this new age… those who are not prepared will watch from the sidelines. It is as simple as that.

It is for all these reasons that these 4th and 8th graders last spring stepped into the universe of more challenging proficiency tests. In what ways were these new tests more challenging and different? For one thing, the levels of knowledge and comprehension required of students were raised across the board. For another, the less demanding multiple choice responses were reduced from 100% of the test options to just one-third. Another one-third of the questions required essay answers. And the final one-third of the questions required answers in the form of demonstrations and experiments. Make no mistake about it, these were not your minimum basic skills tests of yesteryear. Last May, these young people were reaching for the stars.

Clearly, the bar has been raised in New Jersey. The statewide average results of the new, more rigorous proficiency tests taken last Spring will be used as the base line against which future achievement will be measured.

Previous assessments served their purposes, but they can no longer serve as a basis of comparison on student achievement. Previous content and assessments are no longer rigorous enough to fulfill the mandate of the Legislature and the State Board of Education that we prepare students for the much tougher demands of college and the workplace in the 21st century.

These base line scores must be considered the first in a new generation of assessments aimed at measuring students’ proficiency in the more demanding Core Curriculum Content Standards.

For 8th grade students, the statewide average test results in mathematics showed that 38% were partially proficient, 43% were proficient and 19% were advanced proficient. In language arts literacy, 22% were partially proficient, 71% were proficient and 7% were advanced proficient.

For 4th grade students, the statewide average test results in mathematics showed that 40% were partially proficient, 44% proficient, and 16% were advanced proficient. Fourth grade language arts literacy results were 59% partially proficient, 41% proficient and .6% advanced proficient. Results in science at this grade level were 14% partially proficient, 52% proficient and 34% advanced proficient.

We consider this first round of results from our more rigorous new tests to be a success because they accomplished the primary purpose of identifying precisely which students need help in which subjects. Remember, the 4th and the 8th grade test results are not an end in themselves, as they have too often been portrayed. These tests are, first and foremost, a diagnostic tool that helps teachers pinpoint students’ individual needs so they can help them to higher levels of achievement.

We could have rested on our past laurels. After all, 97% of our 11th grade students were passing the old proficiency tests. But that would have been deceiving our students and their parents. There would have been the illusion of success; followed by the devastating reality of being unable to compete in a world that is a pitiless place for the poorly prepared.

Call it tough love. Call it a reality check. However it is described, these higher proficiency standards are nothing more than a recognition by all of us that the future belongs to those who prepare for it.

I understand fully that raising our standards and our assessments can be threatening and confusing. Change is always frightening, no matter how urgently it is needed. That is why we are proceeding slowly and carefully, listening to the many thoughtful people who have expressed concerns and advanced suggestions. The tests as they stand today have elicited very understandable reservations about such matters as over-testing and double testing; the length of the tests; the lack of timely feedback on test results; and the problems associated with locally-assessed components and multiple test booklets.

We hear you. We are already working with the entire education community to remove as many concerns as possible without compromising the diagnostic value of these new tests. Together, we will get that job done.

Where do we go from here?

First we must complete the cycle of evaluating and communicating the test results we now have. In late August, all districts received their 8th grade raw results to review for accuracy. These results are to be reviewed and confirmed by the local districts and returned to us by October 1. In mid-September, all districts received their 4th grade results for the same review. These are due back by early October. The Department of Education will then make public the New Jersey School Report Card, a detailed statistical profile of every school and every district in the state.

The real challenge, however, is not the taking, the grading and the communicating of these test results. All this effort will only be worthwhile if we use the confidential, individual results to help our children become steadily more proficient, steadily more prepared to assume their rightful place as leaders of tomorrow.

To assure that this happens, we have already initiated a proactive program that will touch every student in New Jersey.

First, we are working with local Boards of Education and District Administrators to help them design whatever curriculum their children need to succeed. We are providing a comprehensive curriculum framework for all subjects covered by the new tests, which addresses the needs of all students.

Second, record levels of state aid are being provided to local districts to finance this enhanced scholastic effort. In the past five years, state aid to education rose by $1.2 billion; and the state’s share of local budgets rose to an average of 43.2%. In fiscal 2000, we will provide $5.3 billion in aid to local schools.

Third, teachers and administrators are getting additional training to meet the demands of the tougher criteria. We have required the establishment of an Educational Technology Training Center in every county. In its first two years of operation, this statewide system has provided professional development in the area of educational technology for nearly 65,000 teachers. Another Department directive requires that teachers take 100 hours of additional training every five years.

Fourth, we will continue to make whatever adjustments are necessary to assure that our statewide assessment programs are fair, time-efficient and relevant. We are constantly seeking input from our colleagues in the education community to find better ways to develop, administer, grade, report and use statewide tests. The State has already substantially reduced the testing time for both the 4th and 8th Grade tests.

Fifth, we are on the threshold of a vastly expanded use of technology to explore new frontiers of teaching and learning. Beginning in fiscal 1997-98, we have committed a five-year budget of $250 million to establish Distance Learning Network Aid. This is categorical aid that districts receive on a per-pupil basis to buy equipment, connectivity and Professional development. The result will provide pupils with unlimited access to information, no matter where they go to school. I promise you, New Jersey will continue to be a leader in this indispensable area.

Sixth, in the 30 Abbott Districts where we find some of the most discouraging results, there will be dramatic increases in state assistance and commitment to support school reform, early childhood education and facilities modernization. Helping our urban children to improve performance remains one of our greatest challenges.

Seventh, we are now completing a program to assist local districts in communicating with parents and communities about the test results so they better understand the positive role of our new tests in their children’s education. This communications program will include literature for Parent-Teacher conferences, media campaigns, town meetings, a speakers bureau, press relations and other forms of community outreach.

Eighth, we are expanding our Families Achieving New Standards (FANS) Program from Math and Science this year to World Languages and Language Arts Literacy next year and then Social Studies and Art. These programs provide parents with the opportunity to become actively involved in their child’s education.

Ninth, we are encouraging and supporting the launching of a new statewide alliance of the business community, educators and community based organizations. It is called New Jersey United for Higher School Standards, and its purpose is two-fold: to help us better communicate a complete understanding of the new tests and their role in building better schools… and to assist parents in accessing programs that will help their children reach higher levels of proficiency.

There are few places more fitting than here – at the home of famed Thomas Edison – to talk about the importance of challenging oneself and constantly striving to reach even greater heights.

Over a 50-year period, first in Menlo Park, and later here in West Orange, Thomas Edison worked incessantly. He took out more than 1,000 patents and produced a stream of scientific and technological breakthroughs – from the invention of the phonograph to the production of the first motion picture projector.

But every one of his successes was the result of his persistently challenging the status quo, of tirelessly pursuing higher and higher standards. Edison spent more than $40,000 – a small fortune in 1879 – testing countless filaments before he found one capable of sustaining electric light over a long period of time.

More than most, Edison knew that persistence was its own reward. In fact, it was during one of his last interviews before his death in 1931, in this very house, that Edison said there is no substitute for hard work. It was true then, and it is true today. Success does not come easily. And it will not come at all for many of our children unless we challenge them to achieve higher standards in school.

In partnership with our colleagues in the educational community – the teachers, administrators, Board members and parents – we will lead our children toward the high ground of a successful life.

And now, it is my pleasure now to introduce two gentlemen who have graciously agreed to lead an exceptional grassroots coalition, the co-chairs of New Jersey United for Higher School Standards: Arthur Ryan, Chairman & CEO of the Prudential Insurance Company of America and Alfred Cade, Chairman of the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education.