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3-31-15 Education in the News

PARCC opt-outs should not be rewarded
Asbury Park Press

Call it the "Coddling the Opt-Out Kids" bill.

The state Assembly unanimously passed a bill Thursday requiring schools to accommodate students refusing to take the state's new standardized tests.

However ill-advised their decision, parents should have the right to opt out of Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) testing. By the same token, the Legislature should not be passing laws that insist on having districts bend over backward for the opt-outs. That seems to be what this bill aims for.

Before becoming law, the proposal requires approval from the state Senate — which has yet to act on any PARCC testing bills — and Gov. Chris Christie must ultimately sign off on the legislation. We hope the bill goes no further.

The state should not set a single opt-out policy for every school district. Rather, the districts themselves should establish their own policies that best suit their schools and their communities. And no opt-out bill should give special treatment to the students whose parents have chosen not to let them participate. But if parents insist on keeping their kids home, the students should not be marked absent. Children should not have to suffer for the decisions made by their mothers and fathers.

New Jersey is among a majority of states with no policy on whether students can refuse state tests or how schools should treat those who do.

The bill directs schools to provide students refusing the PARCC exams with an ungraded alternative activity or to allow those students to engage in supervised reading or other self-directed work. If a student's regularly scheduled class is in session during the administration of a PARCC test the student is refusing, that student would be allowed to attend the class, according to the bill. This could give a distinct advantage over those who take the test. That is more than "accommodating" the student. It is giving them an unfair leg up.

Even members of the Assembly who voted for the bill have since been sending mixed messages. Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr., D-Middlesex, who introduced the bill, has said that students should take the tests, regardless of the legislation.

"I think it would be helpful for everybody's kids to take this test," he said. "You don't know what's wrong with it really until you actually try it."

Republican support for the bill shouldn't be seen as encouragement to opt out but merely support for giving parents and students that option, Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, R-Union, said.

"A parent should allow the children to take the tests and then let's analyze the results of those tests to determine whether they are skewed, whether they have benefit, whether they are achieving the goals that have been set forth," he said.

What? Everybody should take the test but we will make every effort to make the kids whose parents refused as comfortable as possible, even to the point of taking advantage of not having to take the test?

The only thing the bill says that makes sense is that students can sit and read a book during testing.

The PARCC test has its difficulties, to be sure, including claims that it is too hard, and far too time-consuming. But the prudent course of action now is to let this year's test roll out and then study the effects of the test itself as well as attendant issues, such as the time involved and the scheduling.

There also should be time given over to hearing the concerns of parents, students, teachers and administrators.

But it is important not to inadvertently reward those who do not take the test. Standardized testing is an integral part of public education and is here to stay, with all its stresses. Parents need to teach their children to deal with it.


Mounting refusals to take state tests could hurt N.J.'s federal aid
Hannan Adely
The Record

A tally kept by the state’s largest teachers union shows that the number of students refusing to take new state tests may top 46,000 — meaning too few students are taking the exam to meet a federal mandate, which officials say could put education funding to the state in jeopardy.

Refusals grew from week to week as tests were conducted in March, numbering hundreds in some North Jersey school districts, including 1,100 in Ridgewood alone, or one-fourth of all eligible students.

The union, one of the leading opponents of the tests, has collected numbers from teachers, media reports and parents. Although the numbers are unconfirmed, the union’s tallies from local districts are similar to figures The Record has received by talking to a limited number of school superintendents.

Steve Wollmer, spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, said that the 46,000 figure represents 5 percent of all students in the state. “We know at least that many opted out and that [list] doesn’t even include every district in the state,” he said.

State education officials declined on Friday to say how many have refused the test known as PARCC, or whether the participation rate was below 95 percent. A spokesman said results won’t be known until after testing ends on Thursday.

“The Department of Education and the testing vendor — the entities that will be collecting PARCC data — do not have participation information at this time, as the first testing window isn’t yet completed,” said Michael Yaple, the department’s director of public information.

Low affluent turnout

Although test participation was strong in most schools, large numbers of students were opting out at high schools in mostly affluent districts. Superintendents said many skipped the test because they knew it would not count toward graduation or their grade point averages. Others chose to focus on homework or study for the SAT.

The tests, which were required for the first time this year in math and language arts in Grades 3 to 11, will become a graduation requirement in 2019. They’re named for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, the group of states that developed them.

In some districts, parent activists encouraged opting out of the tests, claiming PARCC is time-consuming, a drain on resources, or too confusing and difficult.

But supporters say it encourages critical thinking, is rigorous and will provide data that can be used to help students and improve instruction.

In Ridgewood, the majority of high school students — 800 out of 1,300 — did not take the test.

“I think some people had a philosophical disagreement with the test. I think some parents succumbed to their child’s pressure: ‘Johnny is not taking it, why should I?’Ÿ” said Superintendent Daniel Fishbein.

He added, “We have a very rigorous program and I think that because the state did not make this a requirement, students worked on other things.”

In the Pascack Valley district, which has two high schools, Superintendent Erik Gundersen said he had fewer than 10 refusals in each building just two weeks before testing began and then saw an “onslaught.”

Out of 1,531 freshman, sophomores and juniors, 571 students did not take the exams. Non-testers had to be accommodated in an auditorium, he said.

“A lot of it has to do with perceived notion that it doesn’t do much for the high school student,” Gundersen said. “They’re not being held accountable yet and results come in too late to count for anything.”

Some classrooms, he said, only had a few students taking tests and some students felt it was unfair. As a result, some did not take the test seriously and may even have put down false answers, the superintendent said.

“We know for a fact there were some students who made up stories in their essay question that did not address the questions whatsoever,” he said.

Gundersen was concerned that results will not be representative of the district. “You could argue that 50 percent is a good sample, but not when they are not taking the test seriously,” he said.

But in many districts, including large urban ones, participation was strong. In Hackensack, there were 150 refusals in a district of 5,600 students in all grades, Superintendent Karen Lewis said. “It didn’t pose any obstacles,” she said.

Schools and programs for special education, English-language learners, and low-income children are required by federal law to have a participation rate of at least 95 percent.

David Hespe, state education commissioner, has warned that schools could lose federal funding, which amounts to about $830 million, if they fall short of that rate.

The teachers union and parent activists have argued that financial penalties are unlikely because other states have dipped below that mark and faced no penalty.

School districts also could face “corrective action” plans if they have low participation, although Yaple said it’s unclear what that would entail.

Superintendents say they’ve already made strong efforts — in meetings with parents, with online information and in letters sent home — to convince people of the tests’ merits.

“We’ve done everything we could to get people to take the test,” Fishbein said. “Hopefully that will be recognized and none of the possible consequences will impact us.”

‘It sends a message’

The NJEA has argued that too much testing dominates classroom instruction and drives teachers out of the profession. The teachers union also is opposed to using state test scores on evaluations for teachers in classes with tests.

If teachers have fewer than 20 students taking tests over two years, they will be judged using other methods, the Department of Education has said.

The union says its numbers are reliable, even though some reports came from members of the public and represented districts with active opt-out movements. The list includes only about half of all 600 districts in the state, so the tally is expected to grow.

The list also had at least two mistakes that could increase the total.

“It sends a message that there is a problem and they need to pay attention to it rather than try to bully people into taking test or saying bad things will happen to schools if you don’t take it,” Wollmer said.

Education officials said that participation figures may be released late next week. They have described participation as strong.

“New Jersey was closing in on 1.6 million completed PARCC tests this week,” Yaple said.

PARCC patience
The Record

When The Assembly unanimously approved a bill Thursday to create a policy allowing students to opt out of taking the new standardized PARCC test, they overreacted to recent parental pushback on the tests instead of showing conscientious leadership.

The Senate should exercise restraint and keep the bill from advancing, rather than legislating New Jersey out of a test before the first results can even be evaluated.

An opt-out movement for this exam swept across the country this year, with critics saying the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test takes time and resources away from the classroom and is not a good measure of learning, Staff Writer Hannan Adely wrote.

Supporters say PARCC focuses more on critical thinking and strategies, rather than just testing on content.

This proposed legislation would let parents give schools written notice at least 14 days in advance to keep their children from taking the PARCC. Schools would have to provide students with "educationally appropriate" activities in another room.

Students in Grades 3 to 11 must take the exams in math and English language arts, but the state doesn’t have an official policy on what schools should do with students who opt out. There was concern that some schools had children who opted out "sit and stare" in the same room as their classmates who were taking the test.

It’s too early to know how effective PARCC will be. Legislators know this and said parents should have their children take the exams so the results can be analyzed and to see if the new testing system benefits students, Adely reported.

"I don’t want anyone to interpret my vote as encouraging them" to refuse, Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, R-Union, said Thursday. But the actions of the Assembly could easily be interpreted as an endorsement of the notion that parents are right to keep their children from the test.

Governor Christie took a more patient stance than the Assembly at a town-hall-style meeting in Fair Lawn earlier this month: "I'm not going to kill PARCC before we even take PARCC."

There have been some sample tests available, but parents still don’t have a thorough understanding of PARCC. Christie added he may have "grave concerns" after viewing the PARCC results. But he said one of the concerns he’s heard from parents — that their children aren’t familiar with taking an exam on a computer — shouldn’t be a reason to opt out.

"The fact is, both the SATs and the ACTs will be computer-based in the next two years," Christie said.

Changes are coming and that may scare some parents. But change doesn’t have to be bad. The state may ultimately decide that PARCC is not helping. Or it may find it to be incredibly beneficial. We don’t know yet. For now, legislators should remain hands off on the tests.





Charter school funding, county commissions and religious holidays fill light agenda

*Date: Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Time: 10 a.m.


Board of Education Agenda

Charter Funding Regulation

Religious Holidays Resolution

‘Enlargement of Purpose’ Resolutions

Where: New Jersey Department of Education, 1st-floor conference room, 100 River View Plaza, Trenton

What they are doing: The State Board will have one of its quieter meetings of the last few months, taking a month off from the debates over PARCC testing, student opt-outs and teacher evaluations. But there are a couple of important matters, including a charter schools regulation that shields their surpluses from districts and another two resolutions to expand the reach of the state’s special services commissions. The board will also take the final vote on the annual religious holiday calendar for schools.

Charter funding regulations: Maybe the most notable item will be the introduction of new regulations that would rewrite some of the funding rules for charter schools.

Included is a measure to prevent local districts from pulling back funding to the charters in the case of inordinate surpluses. The change comes out of a legal challenge by Piscataway schools district in 2012, where it sought a reduction in the tuition it paid four charter schools where Piscataway students attended that had posted large surpluses. Piscataway won in appeals court and was remanded back to the state education commissioner, where the case is still pending.

Special services commissions: The board will also take up resolutions that would expand the geographic reach of the Middlesex Regional Educational Services Commission and the Passaic County Educational Services Commission. Such “enlargement of purposes” resolutions are rare, and board president Mark Biedron said it would be an opportunity to discuss the agencies’ growing place in the state’s special education programs.

Holiday calendar: The state board annually adopts the list of religious holidays in which students can receive an excused absence from school. The growing list now includes more than 141 holidays, with the latest changes including additions to the days marked by the Baha’i faith.

No PARCC: The board will not take up any measures or hear any presentations related to the ongoing and controversial PARCC testing.

Biedron, the board president, said he supports letting the testing run its course this spring, and then address any questions or concerns afterward. “I say we wait and see,” he said yesterday.

Greater parent voice: Much of the PARCC protests have come out of growing parent concerns over the new testing, and Biedron said he wants the board to provide greater opportunities for people to air their opinions.

One idea is regular gathering public testimony around the state at hearing held at more convenient hours. “How do we have a process where parents can voice their opinions outside just the monthly public testimony session at 2 o’clock in the afternoon,” he said.

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