Montclair Board Meeting: Questions About Student Survey, Standardized Testing Changes, Budget Passed

Montclair BoardThe Montclair Board of Education meeting on April 8 was a mostly subdued affair, what with the board and Dr. Penny MacCormack clearly relieved to have gotten contract negotiations with the Montclair Education Association (MEA) behind them.

Budget Receives Unanimous Approval
“Last week was a big week for education in Montclair and for the community,” Board President Robin Kulwin said of the tentative agreement with the MEA.  “Both parties negotiated well into the night and honored the commitment to negotiate in good faith.  She singled out board members Shelly Lombard and Norman Rosenblum for their work in the talks as members of the Board of School Estimate (BSE).

Kulwin noted that Schools Superintendent Dr. Penny MacCormack and her staff went through every line of the budget.  Despite its unanimous approval, Kulwin said that the BSE did not simply approve it without debate asked numerous questions on the spending plan before they voted on it.

“There was no rubber in this stamp,” she said.

Tripod Student Survey
The district’s plans to administer the Tripod Project surveys for students in grades 3 to 12, as well as teachers from six to 12, did not get a rubber stamp of approval from attendees of the meeting, however.  Dr. MacCormack’s plan was challenged by Montclair teacher and Montclair resident Sally Rembert, who didn’t think that the survey was vetted and believed it to be a waste of time that could be spent to help students build critical thinking skills. I’d rather my kid be reading a book than sitting and taking a survey,” she said.

Others objected to the cost of the survey, pegged at $95,000, but several board members defended the practice.  Shelly Lombard said it was important to get everyone’s feedback.  “The students who are our primary concern, and the reason that all of us are sitting here, we want to know what they think,” she said.   “The teachers . . . the parents, we want to know what they think.” On the complaint of money, Lombard added, “We spend $15,000 a year per student, we can’t spend another $16 per student to see if we can improve on what we are doing? That’s kind of surprising to me.”

“I’m really tired of my child being part of someone else’s experimentation,” Rembert, unmoved, declared.  She planned to have her child opt out of the survey.

Changes in Standardized Testing
Earlier in the evening, George Glass, the Montclair school district’s student data analyst, gave a presentation on yet another measurement of academic performance the district plans to use going forward in evaluating student performance. Under this system, students are measured for their “Student Growth Percentile” (SGP) in different subjects by keeping track of their scores in a particular subject in the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJASK) tests  (given from third to eighth grade) more than one grade to determine their overall  proficiency.

“A student growth percentile score compares a student’s academic growth by the NJASK from one year to the next,” Glass explained, “to the growth by the ASK student’s academic peers.”  Academic peers are students in other parts of New Jersey with similar test score histories.

An example of how the SGP matrix would work goes like this: If a student named Linus scored as “proficient” with a consistent score between 200 and 205 in language arts literacy in fourth and fifth grades and scored 207 in the sixth grade, Linus’s score would be compared to a group of similarly proficient students.  If the group showed a score as low as 175 and a score as high as 275, Linus would score 43% higher than students at the lower end but score 57% lower than those at the higher end.  Thus, with an SGP of 43, Linus would be shown to have improved his literacy score but at a slower rate than his peers, suggesting the need for extra instruction to help Linus score higher.

Rembert was also displeased with NJASK, noting that students “shall” not “must,” take that test, and she hoped to have her child opt out of that as well. Dr. MacCormack noted that NJASK would be replaced by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers (PARCC) in the spring of 2015.

Other Resolutions
The board also passed several resolutions, including approvals of bills and claims, out of district placements, and acknowledgment of the receipt of certificates from the BSE to the board and the township council relating to the 2012-13 operating and capital budgets.  All resolutions passed unanimously, although board member Deborah Wilson was absent.

Click here to sign up for Baristanet's free daily emails and news alerts.


  1. An example of how the SGP matrix would work goes like this:

    If Linus’ teachers suck and as a consequence Linus sucks at school, as long as Linus is as relatively sucky as all the other sucky students with sucky teachers elsewhere in the state, then all will pronounced “well” .

  2. I asked someone at CO (now CS?) about the correlation between the challenge areas delineated by the superintendent and the four upcoming meetings. Some were obvious, but others (eg. “rigorous instruction”) were less so.

    For those interested, here’s what I received:

    1. Rigorous Instruction: Forum on Challenging All
    2. High Expectations for All: Forum on Challenging All
    3. Central Services: Forum on Central Office & Leadership Development
    4. Communication: Forum on Communication & Parent Engagement
    5. Leadership/Accountability: forum on Central Office & Leadership Development
    6. Resources/School Offerings: Forum on same; also anyone interested in Magnets – as that relates to school offerings
    7. MHS: Forum on Challenging All and MHS


  3. Standardized assessments, no matter how they are interpreted, should be only one of several measures which describe students’ progress. Some parents, IMHO, place far too much weight on these dastardly, big business, tests!!

  4. One teacher survey takes almost a half hour — and kids have to do one for each teacher — so if a kids has four or more teachers (middle school) that’s at least 2 hours. Questions like are you afraid of your teacher, is your teacher afraid of you, does someone help you with homework at home, do you have a clean, neat place to work and of course, the old ask the question over and over, but worded differently.

  5. “Some parents, IMHO, place far too much weight on these dastardly, big business, tests!!”

    As a parent: yes and no.

    First: I don’t have a problem with tests. I don’t view these as more dastardly than those built by teachers. We use “big business” texts. My sons have several teachers assigning school and home work from “big business” workbooks, and are apparently using tests from the same sources.

    What’s wrong with this? Why should everyone try to reinvent the wheel?

    That said, a single high-stakes test is ridiculous. A bunch of our HS students took their SATs a few months back while still dealing with the aftermath of a storm that knocked out power to most of us for many days. How many of those students hadn’t slept well due to lack of heat, or hadn’t had a good breakfast?

    And this is just an extreme example. On any given “test day”, how many students have a cold or an allergic reaction or have failed to get enough sleep because of a loudly ill sibling or…life?

    More: In that video presented at the last BOE about SPG (or some such acronym), it was described how students’ 5th grade teacher can use the results of those students on their NJASK grade 5. No. The results don’t appear until grade 6. The 5th grade teacher spends the entire year with only the results from the previous year.

    More frequent, lower stakes testing avoids this.

    Of course, teachers are doing this type of testing all along. But why not have at least some of those many tests also compared to standard benchmarks (other schools, peer groups, etc.)? It shouldn’t take any more testing time (since the tests are already occurring), but it will allow us to get far more data from the time and effort spent on those tests. And it avoids all the many problems associated with high stakes and infrequent testing.

    On the topic of parents using scores: to a degree this is true. It lets us see one dimension of how our children are doing in comparison to their peers (for various definitions of that word). As cooperative as we like to teach our children to be, it remains true that our children will be competing against these peers for college placements, jobs, and even spouses. Part of our job as parents is to put our children “on the right path”, and this is data that can warn us early if our children are diverging from that path.

    Parents also use these scores to examine schools and school districts when making choices. Again, though, this is just one dimension of how such choices are made. Montclair’s school district scores are not stellar, for example, yet we’ve a steady stream of parents moving here “for the schools”. Clearly, parents are not relying exclusively on those scores.