by Linh Tat
in POLITICO New Jersey on Monday, April 4, 2016

As students gear up for the second year of PARCC administration — set to begin on Monday for pupils in grades 3 through 8 and next week for high schoolers — it’s anybody’s guess whether New Jerseyans will see a repeat of last year’s unprecedented test-refusal phenomenon.

Advocates on both sides of the debate have been speaking out with as much conviction as ever as to whether students should sit for the exams. Yet there’s consensus that the noise level is more muted than last year when, for example, the state’s largest teachers’ union ran a series of ads critical of high-stakes standardized tests.

That’s not to say that both camps aren’t pitching their cases. But the approach has changed.

Because it’s the second year of PARCC, most people are familiar with the assessment now, so the focus has shifted from explaining what the exam looks like to keeping the opt-out movement going and “to blunt some of the opposition from the [New Jersey] Department of Education,” said Susan Cauldwell of Save Our Schools NJ, a grassroots group which led the test-refusal movement.

This year, the group has been posting vignettes of parents and educators talking about their objections to PARCC on its Facebook page and reminding parents — as late as Sunday — that they can refuse the exams for their children, with a link to an opt-out letter that parents can submit to their kids’ schools. The group has also been tracking “nice” and “naughty” districts, based on their treatment of parents who opt out.

Critics of PARCC cite various reasons for opposing the assessment, from concerns that schools focus too much on teaching to a test and not enough on actual student learning to objections over tying teacher evaluations to student test scores or the belief that PARCC questions are too difficult or confusing. Critics also question whether this particular exam actually measures college and career readiness, as is its intent.

Proponents of PARCC believe the latest state assessment is indeed a better indicator of students’ critical-thinking skills. And in recent months, the National Network of State Teachers of the Year concluded that PARCC is an improvement over the previous state assessment while the education reform group Achieve said PARCC was helping to close an “honesty gap” between student proficiency rates as reported by the state and the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Results from the 2015 PARCC administration showed less than half of New Jersey students meeting grade-level expectations in math. Only a few grades had more than half the students meet standards in English, but even then, they barely squeaked past the 50-percent mark.

For its part, the Department of Education — which sent out voluminous messages last year in the weeks leading up to and during the testing period about the exam — has tried to simplify its message this year, producing a one-page easier-to-digest chart about changes to the test that address some of the criticisms over last year’s PARCC administration, DOE spokesman David Saenz said.

This year’s exams will be 90 minutes shorter overall for most students (though about one-third of districts will field-test questions, meaning pupils at those schools will have an additional exam section). Other changes include one testing window instead of two, fewer test questions for most students, and a shorter turnaround time for the results.

We Raise NJ has also been touting PARCC’s usefulness as members travel the state to deliver presentations, said Janellen Duffy, executive director of JerseyCAN, an organization belonging to the coalition. We Raise NJ counts among its members the state PTA, school boards association, and the Council of County Colleges, as well as business and education reform groups.

As of late last month, We Raise NJ had made or scheduled at least 30 parent presentations and 25 student presentations, reaching about 5,000 pupils and 700 parents at minimum, Duffy estimated. Their message: The more students take the test, the more data will be collected, allowing the state to paint a more accurate picture of how students overall in New Jersey are faring and how individual students stack up.

“We have to think about this in a comprehensive manner,” Duffy said. “We want to really know how students are faring so we need to have accurate data from a statewide perspective.”

But anti-PARCC advocates have accused the Department of Education and some who support the new state assessment of engaging in an “aggressive campaign” to intimidate parents into having their children sit for the tests this year. They report that some districts, forced by the state to develop corrective action plans because too few students participated in the tests last year, are telling parents they must meet in person with school officials before they can opt out their children, or telling families that schools can lose money if participation rates are low. The anti-testing folks view the move as a tactic to intimidate parents from opting out.

School officials in Franklin Lakes has taken it a step further, reportedly telling parents that opting out of the exam is not an option. The superintendent stated in a letter that students who miss school during testing must make up the exams or provide evidence of medical illness, or they’ll face “consequences for unexcused absences,” reported.

Anti-testing advocates say parents have always had the right to refuse state assessments for their children, and this new practice of requiring parents to first meet with administrators appears to be an attempt to intimidate parents from opting out or to dissuade folks who don’t have the time to attend the meetings.

“I’ve never heard of [parents] having to explain themselves, let alone having to explain themselves in person,” said NJEA spokesman Matt Stagliano. “We see it as a tactic to quell refusal numbers. Really, that’s inhibiting parents’ rights.”

No one knows exactly how many students who did not take PARCC last year did so out of protest. About 15 percent of students did not take the English language arts asssesments while 14 percent did not test in math, according to data from the education department. However, those figures include pupils who may have skipped the tests because they had already passed alternative assessments, had a medical reason or moved before completing the exams, education officials said.

Even so, education officials have also conceded that many more students than usual, especially at the high school level, did not take the state assessments last year. In all likelihood, the majority of the additional students who skipped the tests last year were part of the opt-out movement.

As for the warnings that districts could lose money if test participation rates drop below 95 percent, anti-testing advocates believe those statements are nothing more than empty threats.

Legislation protecting districts with low participation rates on state assessments from losing state aid money was signed into law late last year.

And while the federal government could redirect Title I funds meant to help poor students, many belonging to the anti-testing movement are skeptical that will happen.

“The federal government has made that threat before, but they’ve never taken money from any state,” said Sue Schutt, co-organizer of United Opt Out’s New Jersey branch. Besides, she said, taking funds from students who need the additional resources “is the biggest kind of crazy talk I’ve ever heard.”

Just about everyone interviewed for this article said they hadn’t a clue where this year’s opt-out numbers may end up.

Saenz, the Department of Education spokesman, said one thing is for sure: “PARCC is here. We’re using it. We’re going to continue to administer it with confidence.”


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