Federal law still sets “highly qualified” rules for paras

Published on Friday, August 26, 2016

ParasNonteaching staff who work with teachers to help pupils learn basic academic subjects must still meet a “highly qualified” standard if they work in schools or districts that receive Title I funds for those programs.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed into law in December 2015, made extensive changes in rules imposed under the “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) amendments to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). However, lawmakers and national education groups worked to retain basic qualifications for school staff who assist teachers with academic pursuits, primarily helping with reading, writing and math instruction.

While termed the “highly qualified paraprofessional” requirement, the law places under the requirement any individuals hired to provide those services in the classroom or school library in Title I schoolwide- or targeted assistance-funded programs, regardless of their specific title.

Consequently, paraprofessionals, teacher assistants, aides, and others holding similar titles whose positions include those instruction-related duties must hold at minimum a high school diploma or its equivalent and meet one of the following standards:

  • Two years of study at a higher education institution (a minimum of 48 credits in New Jersey) or
  • An associate’s degree or higher or
  • Demonstrate—through a formal state or local academic assessment—knowledge of and the ability to assist in instructing reading, writing, and math. 

The U.S. Department of Education (USED) reinforced this requirement in its “Transitioning to the Every Student Succeeds Act” guidance issued on June 29. The New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) reiterated these requirements in a broadcast memo to school districts on July 19.

From the start, each individual New Jersey school district was permitted to determine whether it would require such paraprofessionals upon hiring to meet one of the specific standards listed above or allow them to select one of the three standards.  Paraprofessionals who were already employed in such positions when the NCLB amendments were passed in 2002 were required to use these or a portfolio option to meet the standard by 2007.

The NJDOE has authorized districts statewide to use the ETS ParaPro Test as an assessment for meeting this standard, with a minimum passing score of 456. 

While ETS no longer hosts specific dates and sites where individuals can take the 100-item multiple-choice computer-based exam, two higher education institutions—Burlington County College and Ocean County College—do permit individuals to take the test at their testing centers for an added fee and by prior appointment.  Some school districts also offer the test, but only to individuals it plans to hire. See chart for details

In April, the NJDOE correctly reported to districts that ESSA had eliminated the “highly qualified” teacher requirement that had been laid over state certification requirements. At the same time, it initially gave the impression that the “highly qualified paraprofessional” requirement had met the same fate deep in the law’s thousands of pages.  It later corrected that latter position until the USED issued more information.

ESSA returns the determination for teacher qualifications to state certification rules. However, the NJDOE has strongly recommended that districts continue to use the highly qualified and high objective uniform state standards of evaluation (HOUSSE) in assigning teachers within their certificates. All NJEA members—both certificated and non-certificated staff—are advised to get and keep copies of all of their “highly qualified” paperwork throughout their careers. Electronic records can be saved at njea.org/mypddiary.

ESSA implementation also requires extensive stakeholder involvement at the state and local levels, including teachers and paraprofessionals. NJEA is working with the NJDOE and other stakeholders to ensure that happens during the 2016-17 transition year for implementing the ESSA amendments.

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