*UPDATE: This post was originally published in January. Since then, PARCC has backed away from the responses cited below and has redirected questions about testing policy to states and districts.
There have been a lot of education-related developments in New Jersey in the past week, and many people are taking to social media to join the ongoing discussion about federal and state testing mandates and the extent to which parents and districts must abide by them.
In last week’s NewsFlash, I linked to testimony given by parents, students, and educators at the January 7th State Board of Education meeting. Today’s buzz is about email communications from PARCC “Customer Support” specialists to parents–aka “customers”–about who is and isn’t allowed in rooms where PARCC testing is taking place.
But before we get to those communications, and since many people new to the testing debate are confused by mixed messages they’re receiving from district administrators, internet sources, and other parents, let’s revisit and address one of the most frequently-asked questions on sites like the Facebook group Opt Out of State Standardized Tests–New Jersey: “Can I opt my child out of PARCC testing?”
Well, the short answer is yes–although the term “opt out” is problematic since there is no established “opt out” provision in New Jersey. Instead of asking to “opt out,” parents must submit notification that they’re refusing testing on behalf of their children.
And while it’s true that districts are required by law to administer PARCC tests, here’s a quick list of the reasons that refusals can and should be accommodated all over New Jersey:
- Last week, NJ State Board of Education President Mark Biedron acknowledged that “nobody can force your child to put their hands on a keyboard” to take a test. This is obvious.
- Also last week, NJ Education Commissioner David Hespe said–when asked about how districts should handle refusals–“Every district should apply its own policies. […] We should not automatically assume that coming to school and not wanting to take the test is a disciplinary problem.” This seems obvious too, and it’s part of the reason districts like Bloomfield and Delran have been able to adopt student- and family-centered testing policies.
- Contrary to what many administrators would have parents believe, districts will not lose funding if fewer than 95% of their students participate in PARCC testing. It’s not surprising that some districts are using this threat against families, particularly since Commissioner Hespe himself cited it in an October memo as a reason districts must test all students. (The 95% participation rate was an NCLB mandate, and New Jersey has an NCLB waiver. See FairTest.org for a detailed explanation of the 95% participation rate issue.)
- District officials cannot tell parents to keep their children home during testing days and make-up days.
- The Spring 2015 PARCC Test Coordinator Manual specifically states that “unauthorized visitors,” including “non-testing students,” are “prohibited from entering the testing environment.” This seems obvious, too. Do we really want to a) force a child to stare at a computer for hours at a time if his/her parents have refused testing, and b) have children who are trying to concentrate on testing in the same room with kids who don’t have to take the test? What kind of “testing environment” would either of those scenarios create? (See below for screenshots from the PARCC manual.)
- According to PARCC Customer Support representatives, “If a student is not taking the test for any reason, they are considered a non-testing student. This includes the parent refusing the student to take the test.” (Below is a screen shot of an email to NJ parent Sharon Devito, who contacted PARCC to inquire about non-testing students. After Sharon got a response from PARCC, other parents from New Jersey contacted the company with similar inquiries. By mid-day, it seemed that PARCC was redirecting parents to state and district policies, which begs the question: if states and districts can ignore/change/interpret-how-they-wish PARCC security policies, what good is a test coordinator manual and why should any of it be adhered to?? See Melissa Katz’s post for more info.)
I’ve seen many letters from administrators in New Jersey who have denied refusal requests and insisted that parents cannot keep their children out of testing, and the short list above addresses virtually every one of the points administrators cited in those letters.
So to sum up: NO, we can’t force students to take tests. YES, NJ districts have the autonomy and authority to accommodate refusals without imposing punitive measures. And YES, “non-testing students” must be placed in alternative settings–both to preserve the integrity of testing environments and the well-being of all children in the school.
Adding: On a larger scale, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- The decision to refuse testing is one that should be made by families based on what they feel is best for their children. If you’re new to the testing discussion and you’re wondering why so many people all over the country are keeping their children from participating in high-stakes standardized testing, see the Delran Education Association’s position on high-stakes standardized testing here. You should also explore PARCC practice tests and sample items to get a better understanding of what the assessments are asking of our children.
- That there is so much confusion and conflicting information about testing should be a red flag to anyone paying attention to the testing debate. But perhaps most concerning is that it seems that until this point, policymakers never anticipated that they’d be challenged in the way they’re being challenged now; instead, they assumed that parents and educators would just accept any policies that came down the line, regardless of whether or not those policies were actually good for children. The more parents and educators speak out about overtesting, the faster policymakers will be forced to address those concerns, release revised policies and guidelines, etc.
- Remember that 26 states initially signed on to PARCC, but since then, more than half of those states have since removed themselves from the consortium. (This is not likely to happen soon or without a big fight in New Jersey, since New Jersey is a “Governing State in the PARCC Consortium” and NJ Commissioner of Education David Hespe serves on the PARCC Governing Board.) Further, while there are certainly flaws that are exclusive to PARCC and Pearson, Common Core states that drop PARCC are still required to fulfill a federal testing mandate by administering Common Core-aligned high-stakes tests. Refusing testing and pressing officials to drop PARCC, for example, are certainly worthwhile endeavors that address immediate concerns–but PARCC is a symptom of a much larger problem that starts at the federal level.
- Developments at the federal level: Race to the Top loses all funding in a spending bill released by leaders in congress, and since testing really is all about the money, it’ll be interesting to see how this affect states and current policies. Also, Arne Duncan is insisting on keeping annual testing mandates in an upcoming revision of NCLB.