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PARCC testing goes on, despite weather and opt-outs

A new and controversial online standardized test, threatened by a growing opt-out movement, made its official debut this week despite weather disruptions and pockets of high resistance.

Video grab from advertisement of NJEA opposed to the new PARCC testing.
Video grab from advertisement of NJEA opposed to the new PARCC testing.Read more

A new and controversial online standardized test, threatened by a growing opt-out movement, made its official debut this week despite weather disruptions and pockets of high resistance.

Two winter storms interfered with the testing schedules of many districts, but the feared widespread computer glitches did not appear to materialize in New Jersey's administering of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).

Participation was the big question as criticism mounted in recent weeks, and test opponents urged parents to refuse to allow their third through 11th graders to take the tests. By week's end, reports of parents opting out of the test remained anecdotal. While more students will likely take the test than not, the number of refusals will be higher than last year's approximately 1,000.

Locally, the Pemberton Township School District had about 20 refusals out of about 3,000 students who will take the test, according to Superintendent Michael Gorman. In Washington Township, the week started with 109 opt-outs of the 5,400 children who take the exam.

Other districts, however, saw large-scale refusals, particularly those where the opposition to PARCC was well-organized and vocal. Critics say the test is developmentally and grade inappropriate, confusing, and hard to navigate, and takes time and resources away from teaching and other programs.

In Cherry Hill, where PARCC opposition was vocal, fifth, eighth, and 11th graders took the PARCC this week. Of the 11th graders, only 27 percent were willing to take the test, according to Joseph Meloche, assistant superintendent. For eighth graders, the rate was 82 percent. Ninety-one percent of the fifth graders were set to take the test.

State Education Commissioner David Hespe said he believes the majority of parents see the value of PARCC.

"For the first time in decades of statewide student assessments in New Jersey, we have an assessment that is designed to improve the classroom and give parents meaningful feedback about their child's academic progress," Hespe said.

At a town-hall meeting Wednesday in Fair Lawn, when Gov. Christie was asked if his "grave concerns" about the Common Core curriculum standards extended to the test it is aligned with, he said it was too soon to judge PARCC.

"I would urge parents, please, before you even know whether the test has efficacy or not, don't opt your kids out of it," Christie said. "We're going to have to test kids. And I'm going to try to make sure that we test them as reasonably as possible."

In Livingston, where Christie grew up, 1,100 of 4,100 students brought in letters from their parents or guardians saying they would not take the test. That includes half the high schoolers who would have taken the exam.

District spokeswoman Marilyn Joyce Lehren said residents opposed to PARCC had been active. In addition, "Our board has been very up-front about their reservations [about PARCC], as has the interim superintendent," Lehren said.

Some schools could lose some federal funding if their participation falls below 95 percent, although experts say that is highly unlikely and a federal Education Department spokeswoman said that sanction has not been used in recent years.

"I guess we'll find out," Meloche said.

Like most students of his generation, Jesse Stiller, 16, a junior at Cherry Hill High School East, grew up taking standardized tests. But he did not take PARCC.

"There is no value in testing," he said. "I think schools should be about education, not about testing, money, and whatnot."

He especially didn't care for PARCC, based on a sample of the test he took.

"I found the test to be developmentally inappropriate, and I found it excruciatingly hard," said Stiller, who is scheduled to take an Advanced Placement history exam this year.

Delran also saw quite a few opt-outs - about 500 out of 1,800 students, according to district teacher and PARCC opponent Michael Kaminiski.

If the test continues to be given, he said, he would like to see enrichment activities organized for the nontesting students. Like many districts, the Delran students were placed in alternative rooms and allowed to read and work quietly. Parents generally have found that preferable to "sit and stare" policies, which require nontesting students to sit quietly in the test room in front of a blank computer screen.

Cinnaminson students also were given alternative placements, but some parents were upset with the way they say the matter was handled.

Michael McMullen said he opted out his son, who attends the high school and has attention deficit disorder. He plans to keep his seventh-grade daughter from testing next week.

On the first day of PARCC testing Tuesday, he said, his son was sent to the auditorium. The students had to sit four seats away from each other. They were there for three hours, were not allowed to speak to one another, and were not allowed to nap. Due to what was described as some confusion, he said, his son didn't get to eat lunch. The students were not supposed to use their phones, but he said he got several texts from his son.

" 'Come pick me up.' He said he felt like a prisoner," McMullen said.

A Cinnaminson graduate, McMullen said he has been pleased with the schools, but not with this.

"It doesn't seem right to me," he said. "It seems more like a detention. Even a detention doesn't last three hours."

Superintendent Salvatore Illuzzi said parents who were refusing to allow their students to take the PARCC - which he said was about 15 percent of each grade - were sent a letter that said the students should bring a book or other appropriate materials. The placement was treated as a "quiet study hall," and the procedures followed were intended to maintain order. A letter he provided from the high school principal stated that none of the policies followed was a punishment.

"Refusal to take a test," Illuzzi said, "isn't license for fun activities like playing cards and social activities."