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2-18and19-15 PARCC Controversy Rolls On

NJ Spotlight - Op Ed: Opting Out Of Parcc And Common Core Standards Is A Dangerous Concept


Why stop with standardized tests or the curriculum? Why not let kids opt out of anything from algebra to zoology?

The recent grassroots movement to "opt out" of the upcoming PARCC standardized tests is leading us down a very dangerous path in New Jersey public education.

Districts are receiving PARCC opt-out letters from parents, and we're all dealing with them as best we can, given the lack of cover or direction from Trenton (not to mention the recent missive from our governor on said topic).

But the letters don't stop there. Most have been created in some centralized place, with form-letter language that "informs" us that the child will not be taking PARCC and will not be allowed by the parent to have anything to do with the Common Core. No tests "aligned with" the Common Core, no computer-based activity "aligned with" the Common Core, and so forth.

And then the letters demand that "alternate plans be made and/or alternate assignments be given" and that "no punitive consequences" be applied to the child as a result of all this opting out. And then there are various Supreme Court decisions and Constitution excerpts cited to support such demands.

I do understand the concerns people have with the PARCC tests, and I in fact share some of them. I feel the PARCC tests as currently configured take too much time to administer, and I strongly object to how they are used to compare districts (or schools) to one another. And worse yet, very few educators, anywhere, will agree with the notion that standardized test results are either a valid or a reliable way to evaluate teachers.

Having said that, assessment is a natural and necessary component of the education process. Great teachers deploy assessment techniques all the time to help shed light on both their students' needs and the efficacy of their teaching. PARCC results, we are told and we hope, will provide us with valuable insights into our students' needs and how we can meet them, so I am willing to give PARCC the benefit of the doubt to see if that promise will be fulfilled. After all, it's not like we haven't had standardized testing for, well, decades (if by a different name -- Iowa, Early Warning Test, NJASK, and the like).

What distinguishes PARCC from these prior versions, among other things, is the highly charged political climate of 2015. It seems as if everything now needs to be viewed (and acted upon) through a political lens. PARCC is linked to the Common Core, which in turn elicits angry, visceral reactions from several different quarters. And we then start down the road of letting politics interfere with the educational process. Politics, especially the partisan variety, has no place in the classroom and can in fact be quite distracting.

Coming out of all this political hysteria is a fast-brewing notion that it is a right to opt out of things happening at school with which one doesn't agree.

Herein lies the danger. True, there is precedent for telling the school that your child will not participate in things ("family life" and "sex education" classes are the most salient example, and probably the old fashioned way of dissecting things in biology class can be included as well, and of course there is also the vaccination requirement that has been an opt-out candidate for years).

Those topics (which often center on religious objections, by the way) notwithstanding, very few public school things have been candidates over the years for opting out. If a parent didn't like the way the local public school was approaching a given topic, they could find another way to educate his or her child (private, parochial, or even home-schooling options).

But opting out of things with such broad brush strokes is different, and taken to its extreme, this new version of opting out will destroy public education as we know it today. If we don’t stop facilitating and/or encouraging all this "opting out" or "refusing" (or whatever it's called), we might as well set up a la carte public schools. Opting out of Common Core? There go all of the child's language arts and math-class activities. Every. Single. One. Everything we do in language arts and math is aligned to the common core!

Further, what's to stop a parent of a high school student in 2015 from opting out of a bunch of other things that school does, too. What's the difference? Why not opt out of having one's child take that nasty calculus exam that she didn't study for because she was out of town over the weekend? Why not opt out of her having to go outside for PE during first period because she doesn't like the cold, and then opt her out of having first lunch, because she is way too cranky in the afternoon if she eats lunch at 10:30 a.m.

For that matter, why not opt out of her having to start school at 7:30 a.m., since we all know her teenage sleep needs run counter to starting that early? And then demand alternative activities for all and demand, in writing, that she won't be penalized in any way for her actions resulting from these opt-out demands.

I know the PARCC opt-out movement is popular, and I know the people who are part of it are only looking out for what they feel is their child's best interest, so I do not blame them personally. But from the systemic perspective, opting out is a concept that cannot work. Even though it will be unpopular and will attract an aggressive reaction, somebody has to stand up and point out that the opt-out movement has to stop. It is just not a practical or viable approach to public education.

James A. Crisfield is superintendent of the Millburn Township public schools.

The Record - New Jersey's new test for third-graders tough even for reporter  ‘…Are the exams — the first standardized tests to be given by computer in New Jersey — as tough as critics have contended? Probably. But I still like the idea of seeing my daughter and her 8- and 9-year-old peers challenged as long as the tests don’t take away from a well-rounded classroom experience.The other major criticism of the tests is how much time they will take. The practice versions are shorter than the real tests, but most third-graders will do a total of 6½ hours of testing; some of it in March and the rest later in the school year. At most schools, both the March and end-of-school-year tests will be given in shorter doses over five to 10 days…’

February 17, 2015, 9:44 PM    Last updated: Tuesday, February 17, 2015, 9:46 PM



The Record

With two weeks to go before New Jersey schoolchildren face new tests that have sparked outrage and panic in some parents and teachers, it fell to me as The Record’s education reporter to determine if these exams are as tough as they have been made out to be.

As a parent of a third-grader, I had an added incentive for getting an early look at the source of all the angst – both the English and math tests that are going to be given to third-graders.

I talked to experts, educators and parents to get their opinions, and I took the test myself to see how I would do — first with about 50 educators and parents at a forum on taking the test, then at the office, answering multiple-choice questions, typing short answers on a computer and writing an essay.

It wasn’t a cakewalk. The 13 third-grade practice questions in English language arts and the 17 questions in math were challenging, and the answers were almost never obvious. Still, I’m happy to report that all my hair is still intact on my head, I did not dissolve into tears, and I got all but a few answers right. Although to be fair, I’m not in third grade.

The new tests will be given to students in Grades 3-11 beginning in March. They are the result of New Jersey adopting new standards of what students should know at each grade level. The exams are designed to be more rigorous than previous tests, but they will not count against students until 2019, when they become a graduation requirement for 11th-graders.

Are the exams — the first standardized tests to be given by computer in New Jersey — as tough as critics have contended? Probably. But I still like the idea of seeing my daughter and her 8- and 9-year-old peers challenged as long as the tests don’t take away from a well-rounded classroom experience.

The other major criticism of the tests is how much time they will take. The practice versions are shorter than the real tests, but most third-graders will do a total of 6½ hours of testing; some of it in March and the rest later in the school year. At most schools, both the March and end-of-school-year tests will be given in shorter doses over five to 10 days.

On an English test, I read three short stories and answered 13 questions that were mostly two-parters and included an essay. Overall, the stories were fun reads, with kid-friendly themes and animal characters. I think my daughter would especially like the ones about a camping trip where everything seems to go wrong and another about a pig who wants to be first no matter what. In a typical question, I had to find the meaning or idea of a phrase or word in a story, then find a line to support my answer.

I got a question wrong when I had to find evidence to support the idea of “contentment,” because I skipped over the paragraph with the correct information. It was one of 31 short paragraphs in the story, and I somehow blew past it or just glazed over it. I worry I may have the attention span of a third-grader.

The question went: How do the details in the story show the idea of “Con-tent-ment?” Which detail from “Johnny Chuck Finds the Best Thing in the World” supports the answer to Part A?

On another question, I erred by picking one answer when I was supposed to pick two. Some parents and teachers say it’s confusing or tricky to have multiple right answers. I consulted with testing expert Joan Herman to get her opinion.

Herman said children – or, in my case, a 39-year-old journalist – would get used to the way questions are asked with practice.

“Picking one correct answer is ingrained. You’ll learn to be attuned to directions,” said Herman, director emeritus of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The essay question asked me to compare the actions and words of main characters in two stories. I don’t know how essays are graded, but as a professional writer I like to think that I did all right there.

On the math exam, there were 17 questions, some with two parts again. I had to add, subtract, divide and find the area of rectangles. I struggled where I had to explain how I got my answer.

Here’s an example of one point in the test where I thought, “Huh?”:

The question states: Cindy is finding the quotient for 27÷9. She says, “The answer is 18 because addition is the opposite of division and 9+18 = 27.” Identify the incorrect reasoning in Cindy’s statement. Show or explain how Cindy can correct her reasoning. Find the quotient when 27 is divided by 9.

The answer key says students need to know that multiplication — not addition — is the opposite of division and be able to identify that as the flaw in Cindy’s reasoning. They also have to be able to find the answer by dividing 9 into 27 and getting 3 and explaining how they got the answer.

That’s the new math, where students have to say how they got their answers and show multiple steps to solve questions that could be figured out in just one or two steps.

It’s a big change in thinking for grown-ups like me who are used to doing math by formula or by instinct. The answer is what it is, we grown-ups say, just because. But experts say the new way of doing math gets kids to think deeper and apply math concepts to their work.

It’s those kinds of math questions that have frustrated parents who have posted their kids’ homework problems on social media with complaints that they’re unnecessarily complicated. They’re also the kind of questions that have my third-grader teaching me at the homework table, and not the other way around.

I also stumbled over math vocabulary, not knowing or remembering the meaning of an array or a quotient. In one question, I had to put two numbers into an “array” and then find the area. Then I had to explain my answer using an equation or equations. I didn’t know how to answer.

Overall, the math was tougher than what I did in third grade, but I also had it pretty easy, and I like the idea that my daughter will be challenged far more than I ever was.

In math, I got at least three wrong but wasn’t sure how I did overall because it was hard to grade explanations of math problems, even with the answer key included.

On one question, I mistyped a number when I transferred the answer from my scrap paper to the screen. I got it wrong because of a typo. No copy editors checking my work here.

In fact, what surprised me most about the math and English tests was how much typing was involved. You have to explain math answers and write essays all by typing into a keyboard. I’m a fluent typist and I made a mistake. How would that bode for young kids who still search letter by letter on a keyboard, punching one slow letter at a time?

I’m not the only one asking that question. Critics say it’s unfair for kids who aren’t familiar with computers to have to take tests online, especially lower-income children who may have less access to computers at home or at school.

Students don’t need a high level of computer skills for multiple-choice questions, but they should be allowed to practice if they are required to type out text answers and essays, said Neal Kingston, director of the Achievement and Assessment Institute at the University of Kansas. Kingston, who has done research on computer-based testing, predicted that the use of online tests will lead schools to raise the level of technology instruction.

Overall, the tests are supposed to encourage critical thinking. They were developed by a group of states called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers – and are called PARCC.

They were born out of concerns that U.S. students don’t perform as well as those from other countries and that many are graduating from high school without being prepared for college. Supporters say the tests will produce detailed information so that teachers will be able to study the mistakes their classes make to understand what students know and where they need help.

When I was in school, I paid little to no attention to standardized tests because, well, my teachers and my parents did not seem to consider them very important. Even in recent years, opposition to standardized tests has been minor – never as large or vocal as it is now with the anti-PARCC movement.

It seems that, in part, pressure is coming from the schools. The PARCC results can be used as a factor in measuring teacher and administrator performance, and that has led some to focus classroom time on test preparation. In fact, teachers have been among the leading voices criticizing the tests, and the largest state teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, began an advertising campaign criticizing them Tuesday.

Parents are alarmed because they see the tests as unfair. They don’t want their children to do poorly on a test — even one that doesn’t count. They argue that the test itself will put stress on students because it is confusing and difficult. Those concerns have been voiced by parents who are speaking out against the tests at local and state meetings and flooding social media.

It’s expected that many children will struggle with the tests and that many will fail. If the results are so dismal that it’s hard to identify students’ strengths and weaknesses, then that’s a problem. If it helps to improve instruction and challenge kids to do better, that may not be a bad thing.

Email: adely@northjersey.com

NJ Spotlight - PARCC Creator Has No Doubts, Touts Benefits of Controversial Testing…As NJ prepares for debut of new assessments, Laura Slover blames politics for growing ‘opt-out’ movement, says critics will ultimately see worth of new exams

John Mooney | February 18, 2015


With New Jersey deep into a debate over the coming PARCC testing, the head of the national consortium that developed the new exams visited Trenton earlier this month to speak with a study commission appointed by Gov. Chris Christie to examine the growth and impact of testing in the state’s public schools.

Laura Slover, a former high school teacher, has been the one and only chief executive of the consortium known as PARCC – or the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers – and been left with the task of both chief cheerleader and chief defender of the new testing.

Slover sat down with NJ Spotlight’s John Mooney to talk about the growing debate over the new test and New Jersey’s place in determining where that national debate is heading. Following are excerpts from that conversation.

Q: You have heard the debate in New Jersey, and I am curious how that fits in with other states as the curtain soon goes up on the testing next month.

A: We are at a pivotal moment for the PARCC consortium, in that 5 million students in 12 states will take PARCC for the first time this spring.

We are confident the tests will be better than anything that has been out there. We are ready. The tests are ready to be launched.

Q: Are the states themselves ready and how do you know that?

A: The states are ready. They have done a number of things, including sharing resources with parents and teachers. There is a plethora of good information out there around the assessment that has been building in the last four years. Schools have also been testing their technology, doing infrastructure trials, getting ready to deliver the assessment.

Q: The question is not so much whether you have been teaching enough, but have districts prepared? Are the systems ready for this? Are schools not going to face challenges in the technology?

A: The lessons learned from the field test are there were some basic things to be improved. All of the things we learned though that have been addressed and resolved. Still it is reasonable to expect that when you administer a new program to 5 million people, there will be glitches, and we will be ready for them.

Q: How do you calm the nervousness about it? This is a very different animal than what we had in New Jersey.

A: I had the opportunity to watch some 6th-graders in Maryland take the field test last year. I spent about 40 minutes chatting with them, and they had a lot to say. And overwhelmingly, they were positive about this test. They said they had learned something from the test, they had fun, and they had especially a lot to say about the technology. There was quite a lot of excitement about just the engagement factor.

Q: The reason you are here in New Jersey is to speak to a study commission that was created to look at rising concerns about the use of assessments in the state. This has been taking place in many states. Where does New Jersey fit into the national debate?

A: There is a national conversation about testing right now.

I think it is really important at this point to take stock at what is true and not true and take a look at all of those measures, local and state, and to be make sure they are high quality, aligned to standards, providing information to teachers, providing good information to families, and overall, moving kids to readiness for college and careers.

Q: Do you think there is too much testing?

A: The Council of Great City Schools report found there is a great variation on the amount of time that schools and districts are spending implementing assessments. That is something to pay attention to.

I believe that testing is a really critical part of instruction. I’m a former teacher of high school English, and I think teachers in their classrooms are assessing all the time. They are assessing what their kids know, what their kids need to know better, and what the teacher can do a better job in teaching.

Q: But some say it should be the teachers who should do the assessing, and not pulling out students to take standardized testing.

A: Testing should not take away from classroom time, it is not an either or. It is an additional tool to give you information about your kids.

Q: What about the use of these results in evaluating schools and teachers? That’s a lot of the tensions in New Jersey.

A: It was the states that came together though PARCC to make sure there is a bridge to college and career readiness. But another purpose that states built toward was that if they wanted to use PARCC as part of an accountability system, would it be a reliable measure.

Each state will take its own approach to that. It is not relevant what my position is. It is for each state to decide. But the point is if it is to be a reliable measure, my position is that it is.

Q: What about the opt-out movement, where families refuse to have their children take the tests at all? There is a movement here in New Jersey that is growing. Is there guidance from the consortium in terms of how to deal with that?

A: That is a state-based decision and different states have different regulations around that. But there have been a lot of misperceptions about that. As a parent of a first-grader, I would not want my child to opt-out.

The tests are better, they are very different from tests of the past. They are a different experience. And I think participation is helpful in giving parents and schools information about their kids. In terms of my daughter, I would want as much good information as possible to help teachers make good decision.

Q: Still, all through all of this, there are still these headlines about protests and states pulling back from PARCC. What is your reaction?

A: I’ll go back to where I started. Five million kids in 12 states. PARCC is really strong. But there are politics and politics abound, and in any case where the states have withdrawn, it has been for political reasons. In no case has a state withdrawn because the test is not high quality. I think over time, as the politics will die down and as this becomes less new, people will embrace it.

NJ Spotlight - What’s Behind Chris Christie’s Change of Heart About Common Core?...NJ Spotlight’s John Mooney joins WNYC’s ‘The Brian Lehrer Show' to deconstruct the governor’s recent comments about testing

John Mooney | February 18, 2015

 Where is Gov. Chris Christie going with the Common Core State Standards and the upcoming PARCC testing in New Jersey?

That was the topic of discussion yesterday on WNYC Public Radio’s “The Brian Lehrer Show,” as NJ Spotlight’s John Mooney joined Lehrer to explore Christie’s comments last week that he had “grave concerns” about Common Core and its associated testing.

Related Links

Christie’s About-Face on Common Core Turns Debate Upside Down

Was it just presidential politics, Christie telling conservative critics what they wanted to hear about new standards and testing? Or did it reflect local concerns about the direction the state is taking -- even if Christie signed off on that direction five years ago?

Either way, the testing will begin next month amid the controversy. And Mooney and Lehrer talked about what comes next and what the governor’s flip-flop says about Christie’s leadership style as governor and as potential candidate for president.


The Record - Teachers union launches anti-test ad campaign in New Jersey  ‘New Jersey’s teachers union launched on Tuesday a multi-million dollar ad campaign highlighting discontent over standardized tests that will be administered in all the state’s public schools beginning March 1…’

February 17, 2015, 8:54 AM    Last updated: Tuesday, February 17, 2015, 6:19 PM


staff writer | The Record

New Jersey’s teachers union launched on Tuesday a multi-million dollar ad campaign highlighting discontent over standardized tests that will be administered in all the state’s public schools beginning March 1.

Four spots that feature parents lamenting the tests were shown beginning at 7 a.m. and will be aired on New York and Philadelphia broadcast networks, cable television in New Jersey and in various formats online, said Steve Wollmer, spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association.  The ads will continue over the next several weeks.

The union opposes using the tests, known as PARCC, to evaluate how well students have learned material outlined in nationwide standards called the Common Core. About 10 percent of annual teacher evaluations would be tied to test results for instructors in language arts and math, the two subject areas covered by PARCC. Wollmer said that would affect about a quarter of teachers in the state.

“This is the issue that is having the biggest impact on our members,” Wollmer said.  It’s probably the number one issue that is affecting the quality of education in the state.”

The state education department has tried to assure teachers and parents that the tests will be a valuable tool in assessing learning and that their administration won’t be overly burdensome. The PARCC, an acronym for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, will be administered in Grades 3-11.

Although it replaces other standardized testing, parents and educators have complained that the PARCC, taken on computers, is too long and difficult and that preparation for the tests has crowded out other learning.

The ads, for instance, feature a mother verging on tears as she explains how after-school programs have been cut in her child’s middle school to devote resources to test preparation.  In another, a father laments that his first-grade son was too tired to go to karate class after doing his school work.

“What are we doing to our kids?” the exasperated father asked.

The PARCC is not administered in first grade and will not be used to determine grade promotions in grades 3-10.  Beginning in 2019, passing the test in 11th grade will be a graduation requirement.

The state education department had no comment on the ad campaign.

Email: alex@northjersey.com

Garden State Coalition of Schools
160 W. State Street, Trenton New Jersey 08608