SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ - Beginning March 2, students in third through 11th grade throughout the state will take the new PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) standardized tests. The new ‘high quality, computer-based assessments in mathematics and English language arts/literacy’ has been met with conflicting reviews and widespread controversy.

On Feb. 12, the bipartisan Assembly Education Committee received unanimously approved two bills: A4190, which would delay the education department’s use of PARCC results for student placement for three years, and A3079, which would prohibit standardized exams, with exceptions, from being administered before third grade. Testimonies on a third bill, A4165, which would set a state-wide policy allowing families to opt-out of PARCC testing and require districts to offer alternative activities for students who refuse, were also heard at Thursday’s hearing.

Designed to align with the new Common Core standards, the PARCC assessments were crafted to give schools, teachers, students and parents better and more useful information on how kids are prepared for their futures. PARCC is making its debut in New Jersey and 11 other states in the 2014-2015 school year; locally it will replace the NJASK (grades 3-8) and HSPA (high school).

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According to Paul Rakalowski, South Plainfield’s Director of Assessment, the district’s position on PARCC is similar to that of prior state assessments and will continue to be just one measure of student performance. “These reports will enable our staff to identify strengths and weaknesses at the most granular student level, which will further open the door for instructional discussions around student-centered learning and differentiated instruction,” Rakalowski said. “We are encouraged by what we've heard regarding the types of student reports we will receive [and] we look forward to having this information as it will help us make informed instructional decisions that benefit students.”

Opposition to the exams, however, is quite strong with many expressing concern over a variety of test factors, including but not limited to, length (up to 10+ hours over the course of several days), administration (computer- or tablet-based only), and content (grade and developmentally inappropriate) as well as what the results will and won’t be used for.

A primary sponsor of all three of the proposed bills, Assemblyman and Education Committee Chairman Patrick Diegnan, Jr. (D-Middlesex) feels the aforementioned factors, among others; need to be ironed out before the results from the tests should be used. “PARCC testing rolled out too quickly and was implemented without input from teachers, parents or others involved in the education process,” he said. “There is so much confusion.”

Diegnan, a South Plainfield resident continued, "We need to have a benchmark to gauge our students statewide, nationwide and even internationally. We need to know what are students are achieving and not achieving and we need ways to evaluate our schools but, in the case of PARCC, we put the cart before the horse."

Bill A4190 – Delaying the Results

Bill A4190 stipulates that, for the 2015-2016 through 2017-2018 school years, the PARCC assessments may not be used to determine a student’s placement in a gifted and talented program, another program or intervention, grade promotion, as the state graduation proficiency test, any other school or district-level decision that affects students, or as part of any evaluation rubric submitted to the commissioner of education for approval. While the exams would still be administered, student results would be suspended and the exams treated, for three years, as a pilot program.

“The tests would still be administers but that period would provide an opportunity to evaluate the test, collect information, see what works and what doesn’t and make the appropriate adjustments,” said Diegnan. “Let’s take a time out and really evaluate what we have. These tests are too important and we need time to get things straight.

Bill A3079 – Protecting Students in K-2

Bill A3079 states a school district may not administer “commercially-developed standardized assessments” – an assessment that requires all test takers to answer the same questions, or a selection of questions from a common bank of questions, in the same manner, and is developed and scored by an entity under a contract with a board of education – to students in kindergarten through 2nd grade; the bill, however, would not preclude a classroom teacher or a board of education from developing, administering, and scoring an assessment in kindergarten through the second grade.

Bill A4165 – The Option to Opt-Out

Discussion over the third bill presented at last Thursday’s hearing is generating the most attention. Bill A4165, if approved, would allow families the option to not participate in the administration of a PARCC assessment and require the district/charter school to provide educationally appropriate alternative activities – in a room other than where the assessments are being administered – during testing.

Under bill, districts/charter schools would also required to let families know, by Sept. 30 of each school year, when PARCC assessments will be administered and parents/guardians would be required to notify the district of their child's refusal in writing no later than 14 days before the assessment.

The PARCC assessment is part of the state required educational program and New Jersey currently does not have a ‘opt-out’ provision. New Jersey Administrative Code 6A:8-4.1 requires districts to test students present during exams, however, districts cannot force a child to sit in the room and do nothing, otherwise known as ‘sit and stare.’ Additionally, PARCC protocol prohibits those not taking the assessment from being in the room with students who are taking the test. Under the current code, districts must provide a safe alternative location for test refusers but are not required to provide alternative educational activities.

With no statewide policy in place, the education department is encouraging school districts to rely on discipline and attendance policies when addressing situations that may arise on assessment days leading to close to 140 of the state’s nearly 600 school districts to implement their own ‘opt-out’ policies over the past few months. As of press time, South Plainfield was not one of them.

“We continue to remain current with all New Jersey Department of Education, which indicate the federal requirement that all students take the assessment. As a result of this requirement, as well as the consequences should we fail to meet the requirement, we have scheduled students as we have in the past with all state assessments,” said Rafalowski, adding, “Since there is no opt-out, we have chosen instead to focus our efforts on ensuring the assessment functions smoothly for our students, via the scheduling and training that has occurred throughout the year.”

The Next Step

Bill A4190 and A3079 must next be reviewed and approved by the Senate Assembly Committee. A vote on A4165 is expected to take place next month, giving the Assembly Education Committee time to iron out the specifics, including whether or not the state could be penalized for the refusals.

State law requires testing of public school students and, to qualify for federal funding under the No Child Left Behind Act, schools must test 95 percent of students in selected grades. In the past, the federal government has issued warnings or even rescinded millions in grant money to states that failed to follow through on their commitment to the new testing. Additionally, in 2012, New Jersey sought a waiver from previous federal rules under the Act and committed to using PARCC testing to evaluate teachers and schools.

“I am confident this is resolvable,” Diegnan said. “I hope and expect it be voted on and passed when the committee meets again in March.”

Before either bill can be enacted, it must pass both the full Assembly and the full Senate and be signed into law by Governor Chris Christie. Once signed, the bill goes into effect immediately.

“In fairness, when first proposed, there was general support for [the PARCC assessments] but as they rolled out, the tests have become a nightmare on all levels. We have come to realize they are more ominous than anyone expected,” said Diegnan. “The good news is these bills unanimously passed in committee and have both Democrat and Republican support.”