WEST ORANGE, NJ - West Orange Superintendent Jeff Rutzky held a presentation and answered parent questions about the PARCC examination at West Orange High School on Thursday.

Rutzky explained the reasoning behind the state’s adoption of PARCC, the various components of the exam, which students will be required to take PARCC, how the data will be used in the future and what accommodations will be made for certain students. He also addressed the opt-out discussion that has been occurring in some New Jersey communities.

Although there is no official opt-out policy for the state-mandated PARCC, parents would be allowed to exempt their children from the exam, Rutzky said. The full process for exempting a student will be explained by early next week and will involve writing a letter to a student’s building principal.

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Students who do not take the exam will be placed in a separate room under adult supervision, where they will be free to read or do homework.

“We wanted to find a balance between respecting parent’s wishes and making sure students who take the test aren’t distracted,” Rutzky said. “Our students want to do well and that might be difficult if there are students who aren’t taking the test in the room.”

PARCC, or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, is a standardized, computer based test that is used to assess students in English language arts and mathematics. It is linked to the Common Core standards adopted by the State Board of Education in 2010 and is ostensibly a superior measure of college and workforce readiness than previously used tests.

In addition to New Jersey, nine other states and Washington D.C. are participating in the partnership. The tests have been a target of criticism and may even serve as a referendum on standardized testing in general.

“I think all this high stakes testing can be damaging to children,” parent Sarah O’Leary said. “It devalues certain subjects and what the teachers do.”

“That’s not necessarily specific to PARCC, but I think this debate has brought some attention and concern to the issue.”

For West Orange, participation for PARCC will encompass general education students in grades 3-11. High school students enrolled in English 9, 10 or 11, as well as high school students enrolled in Algebra I, Algebra II or Geometry will take the exam (students enrolled in another type of math class, such as calculus, will be exempt). 

Newly arrived English learners may be exempt. Special education students, whose Individualized Education Plans call for a different kind of assessment, may also be exempt.

For this school year, two components of the test will take place. The Performance-Based Assessment (PBA) will take place in March, while the End-of-Year Assessment will take place in late April or May. Both components will contain units in English and math. Each unit will have an allotted window of time for completion, from 60 to 90 minutes, depending on grade level and unit type.

The English unit of the March PBA will be more writing-intensive, while the end-of-year assessment will focus more on reading comprehension and multiple choice. This will give human graders more time to grade the written assessments, according to Rutzky.

The math unit will focus on conceptual understanding, fluency, application, reasoning and modeling.

“If students can model or explain how to solve a math problem, it is more likely that they will understand it,” Rutzky said.

Certain accommodations and accessibility features will be made for students based on need. All students will be able to eliminate answer choices, mark tough questions and return to them later, and will have a piece of paper for notes, among others. Certain students will have extra accessibility features such as answer masking and color contrast if their need for those items has been identified in advance.

“Students can’t use an accommodation that they don’t use regularly throughout the year,” Rutzky said. “We don’t want to give them crutches.”

Accommodations for students with disabilities include assistive technology, screen readers, braille displays and closed-captioning, among others.

The district also conducted an infrastructure test to ensure that the necessary computer equipment will work for the tests. There will be spare computers should a problem arise with a work station. Any time lost due to an equipment malfunction will be added to the time allotted for test completion.

Rutzky also outlined the differences between how the PARCC is used this year and how it will be used in the future.

Rutzky maintained that the PARCC will never impact a student’s class grades, nor will it be used to retain students. A student who passes his or her math class will be able to move to the next level regardless of their performance on the math unit of PARCC.

A significant change starting next school year will be that PARCC will be used as a measure for placing students in courses and programs. A passing score in PARCC will also be used as a graduation requirement.

(It should be noted that the PARCC will only be one of a number of criteria used as a graduation requirement; minimum scores on tests such as the SAT or ACT can be used in place of passing PARCC).

More components to the overall exam will also be added. A diagnostic assessment will take place in late September or October; a Mid-Year Assessment will take place in December or January. Rutzky noted that these two components will be optional, with each district able to implement the components at its discretion. A speaking and listening assessment component will also be added and will be required.

Multiple parents questioned the potential efficacy of the test and how its data will impact students and teachers. Parents also expressed concern about the level of stress students might experience due to excessive testing.

“I think using [PARCC] for teacher evaluation pits teachers against each other,” parent Tracy Aytch said.

“Some students just struggle with testing and a teacher might be punished because [his or her] class struggles with the PARCC. In a public school, you get what you get. We have great teachers in this district, but it’s not like a private school where you can pick and choose which students you accept.”

“I commend the Superintendent and thank him for giving us all this information but it seems the direction is coming from people in Trenton who don’t understand what it’s like on the ground floor,” she said.

Aytch also added that missing instructional time devoted to PARCC will harm students who are struggling in certain subjects.

Rutzky said that he was “a fan” of Common Core standards due to an increased level of depth and rigor. He maintained that excessive test preparation is needed because the PARCC is aligned to the new standards that are taught every day. The new standards also offer more clarity and are grade-specific.

“It used to be a more general standard - say a standard for 4th to 8th grade students - which made it hard for a 6th grade teacher to evaluate what students should know,” he said. “It’s definitely harder and expects kids to do more.”

Still, Rutzky expressed some reservations about the implementation and uses of the PARCC.

“I’ll be upfront with what I believe: I think this first year, [PARCC] should have been a pilot program and that the data should not be used in teacher evaluation,” he said. “You need at least two or three years of data to know if a test is valid. It’s brand new and there are flaws.”

He expressed disappointment that the state was still implementing changes in Feb., describing it as “deplorable.”

The implementation of the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJ ASK) test also incurred parental anxiety when it debuted, according to Rutzky.

“There were problems and educators gave feedback and it improved to the point where it was, maybe not loved, but accepted. I think that will eventually happen with PARCC,” Rutzky said.

Rutzky finished by pointing parents to online resources that can be used to help students, such as sample tests.

“I tried a 7th grade math sample and it was hard,” Rutzky said. “[The questions] aren’t easy - but life’s not easy. It’s a competitive world out there.”

The full Powerpoint of Rutzky’s presentation and a PARCC schedule for all schools and grade levels can be found HERE.