Last Monday, the South Orange-Maplewood School District issued guidelines for parents who wish to have their children opt out of the new PARCC standardized test. While the procedures serve to clarify the process for many, some parents object to the fact that test-taking and opt-out students will be in the same room during the exams.
PARCC begins for some students tomorrow, March 2. The test, which is given to students in grades 3-11, is comprised of two parts: the Performance-Based Assessment (or long answer questions), which begins tomorrow and the End-of-Year (EOY) component (short answer questions) which take place in late April and May.
Parents who wish to refuse their children to be tested are asked to email or send a letter to the school’s principal. “Opt-out” students are encouraged to attend school on testing days and bring a book to read quietly while testing takes place in their classroom.
“We cannot provide a separate space for non-testing students due to lack of personnel and space,” said Asst. Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction Susan Grierson. She said the state has left the decision of where to place non-testing student up to individual school districts. “We have vetted all that and checked it out.”
Meanwhile, the Board of Education decided to table a vote on an official board policy regarding opting out of the PARCC exams.
“Our children are being set up to fail,” said Katie Romly, who represents the group South Orange Maplewood Parents for Quality Education. She said non-testing students should be in a separate room and should be provided with alternate educational activities.
Romly urged the Board to pass the official policy, which can be found here. She cited a number of issues with PARCC including its validity as an assessment tool, hasty implementation, overly confusing test questions, problems with the technology needed (PARCC testing is completed entirely on a computer) and the use of the test for teacher evaluation and student assessment.
(The district has already decided it will not use PARCC results this year for academic placement. In addition, passing the test is not currently a requirement for graduation.)
Parent and former SOMS librarian Elissa Malespina said the PARCC manual specified that children cannot have recreational books in the testing environment or their test would be considered invalid. “This [procedure] goes against [the manual],” she said. “Does this mean all the tests [will be] invalid?”
By placing children in an area where they will have to sit quietly while others are taking the test, the district is causing students “undue stress” — something Grierson has repeatedly said the district is trying to avoid — and providing a potential distraction to students taking the test, Malespina contended.
Parent and CHS teacher TJ Whittaker criticized the district’s initial decision to tell parents they were not allowed to refuse testing for their children. “In a democracy, an informed citizenry is paramount,” he said, adding that not informing parents of their rights was “borderline criminal.”
Board member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad thanked Grierson for the administration’s quick action and responsiveness to the community. Grierson said administrators and teachers had done “incredible” job under challenging circumstances to ensure the district is ready to administer the test.
BOE member Donna Smith said the district’s PARCC information sessions were very helpful and eased many parents’ minds about the test.
BOE member Madhu Pai asked if non-testing students would be sitting next to the testing students. Grierson said they could sit on the side or toward the back. “We don’t anticipate there will be no large disruption for anyone.”
“I think this is punitive in nature,” said BOE member Johanna Wright. “I think we are punishing parents who have decided to opt their children out. We are also punishing parents of children who are taking the test because they are going to be a distraction to other children.
“What we are doing here…is wrong. It is wrong for everyone concerned.” She expressed skepticism that the district couldn’t hire substitutes to supervise non-testing students, and could not find any additional space in the school for them.
Wright said the board should review the PARCC manual regarding accommodations for non-testing students. “We make up our own rules all the time.”
BOE President Wayne Eastman asked Grierson to clarify the distinction between non-testing students and those who are refusing. Grierson said according to the PARCC program coordinator, “non-tested” students are considered distinct from parent refusals, and the latter are allowed to stay in the testing classroom.
Student representative Maggie Kritzberg said, “I think this might be one of those situations where we are hyping things up a little bit.” She noted that while students — herself included — might dislike standardized tests, they do serve a purpose of pointing out areas for improvement.
“I hear from students a lot who are worried about the PARCC…because people older than them are worried and their teachers are worried.” She asked teachers and parents to attempt to create a “more relaxed approach” to the test.
BOE member Maureen Jones agreed, and said adults should reassure students that while there would be kinks, they would support students to ensure that testing goes smoothly.
BOE member Jeff Bennett said that while he would prefer that students refusing the test be placed in a separate room, the small number of students opting out thus far did not seem to justify hiring extra staff.
Eastman pointed out that neighboring districts had taken different approaches to opt out students. For instance, Montclair had passed an official board policy, while Millburn chose only to institute procedures for the district to follow.
While acknowledging that the PARCC’s future was uncertain, “standardized testing is not going to go away” and to change the policy as a reaction to the discomfort of change was not the solution, said Lawson-Muhammad.
BOE member Elizabeth Baker agreed, and added that the board should look closely at the bills the state assembly and senate were currently considering, which would delay using PARCC for student and teacher evaluation. (Currently the test will count as ten percent of a teacher’s evaluation.)
“This policy is being manipulated for a bigger opt-out movement that we shouldn’t encourage,” said BOE member Beth Daugherty. She said creating a board policy would make it look as though the district taking a stand against standardized testing, and also might encourage parents to opt their students out. “These are valid conversations,” she said, but are not what the policy is about.
The district will not be using any of the data for academic placement, and there are other options for students to graduate.
Smith disagreed with Daugherty that parents would misrepresent the policy as a tacit stand against standardized testing.
Daugherty countered by citing an op-ed written by the Millburn Superintendent James Crisfeld, wherein he noted a “slippery slope.”
Pai said it concerned her to use PARCC for teacher accountability but she was equally concerned about a bill that would allow three years to pass before PARCC could be used for teacher evaluations.
Bennett said while he acknowledged problems with the PARCC, he disagreed with representatives of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) who recently likened an over reliance on standardized testing to “child abuse.”
While the PARCC is an imperfect way to evaluate teachers, the only other option is for evaluations to come solely from administrators, Bennett said. “At least a standardized test can’t hold a grudge and can’t have dogmatic beliefs about what good teaching looks like.”