PARCC testing underway: Will NJ students opt out in droves again?
Schools around New Jersey start administering this year’s state standardized tests Monday. One of its big questions: How many students will take them?
A year ago, the first time the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers tests counted, widespread confusion, concern and anger led many students to sit out the PARCC at the urging of their parents.
New Jersey has used standardized tests since the 1970s, but these were different: computer-based, developed as part of a multi-state consortium, tied to Common Core State Standards that have stirred opposition and used in part to judge individual teachers as well as assess students and schools.
The results: Only between one-quarter and one-half of students met expectations across the nine grades of math and language tests. Only 40 percent of students passed both parts. And around 130,000 students didn’t take the test, including almost one-fourth of 11th graders.
It’s not known how many of those students “opted out,” as opposed to how many were simply absent, said Department of Education spokesman Michael Yaple. And it’s unclear whether the refusals will be as rampant this year.
“It’s hard to say, and it certainly varies by community. Overall from what we’re hearing, it’s a real different mood this year,” Yaple said. “Last year there was a lot of anxiety, but this year school officials are more prepared and they understand the test and they’re getting that message out to parents, that this is a tool that they can use to help improve their own hometown schools.”
That anxiety hasn’t eased, said Wendell Steinhauer, president of the New Jersey Education Association, which supports tougher standards such as Common Core but not the PARCC, which it calls flawed.
“Last year there was a big ramp-up. I saw a lot of organizations, parent organizations, really with a head of steam,” Steinhauer said. “I don’t think there’s a growing movement. I think the movement’s all in place, and I think parents are going to do the same in protest and let this Department of Ed. know that it’s not working.”
“Parents are still outraged about this test that disrupts their students’ day, costs a ton of money and now, with the results, that was even worse,” Steinhauer said.
After last year’s outcry, states in the PARCC consortium made changes to the exam and districts stepped up efforts to encourage participation.
This year’s PARCC is 90 minutes shorter than last year, with an hour less time for math tests and 30 minutes less for reading and writing. It will be administered once over a two-week span, rather than two testing windows months apart. There will still be 10 to 11 hours of testing time.
“Probably the biggest change that we’ve seen over the course of this past year is that schools have really been reaching out to parents and trying to get out the message that they can really use the feedback from this kind of assessment to improve the classroom, in a way that our old test never really could help,” Yaple said.
PARCC tests measure progress toward meeting the Common Core State Standards. There were once more than 20 states in the consortium, but that has dwindled to seven plus Washington, D.C.
New Jersey is moving away from the Common Core standards to a modified version that is being developed by New Jersey educators. Nevertheless, Yaple says, the PARCC test remains a valid assessment.
“With any assessment, there’s a certain amount of flexibility. It’s the same with this,” Yaple said. “Even though there’s been some changes in the curriculum that have been proposed, and some that may be in the works, it’s still a test that’s reflective of what’s being taught in the schools in New Jersey.”
Other changes in how PARCC is applied could be on the horizon.
Currently, high school students can qualify for graduation by passing the PARCC, achieving certain scores on other exams, such as the SAT or ACT, or having a portfolio of their work approved. A lawsuit has been brought against the state alleging that the PARCC was illegally adopted as a graduation requirement.
A proposal pending before the state Board of Education would make the PARCC a graduation requirement and eliminate the other options, other than a portfolio appeal, for the Class of 2021 (current seventh graders).
The NJEA hopes the state also moves to stop using students’ growth in test scores as a factor in how teachers are evaluated. The state at one point was going to have PARCC scores count for 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, but they reduced it to 10 percent. The federal education law adopted in December, the Every Student Succeeds Act, ends the requirement that scores be used in teacher evaluations.
“Ten percent is not going to be the determining factor in a teacher’s evaluation,” Steinhauer said. “I didn’t agree with it then. I don’t agree with it now. And Congress finally went along with what everybody has thought. It’s ridiculous to use it.”
Schools have a 6-week window in which to administer the tests, with the local schedule decided by individual districts. Tests in grades 3 to 8 will be given between April 4 and May 13. Tests in high schools start a week later and will be conducted between April 11 and May 20.
Some high schools with block schedules administered the tests in November.
A separate science test required in grades 4, 8 and high school will be given in May.
States will receive test results by July, and school districts will have parent score reports by summer. That’s about six months faster than in the tests’ first year.