Are school districts ready for PARCC?

Schools in Union County have been preparing for the new state-mandated test

UNION COUNTY — PARCC testing is launching this spring regardless of the angst and financial impact it may cause in some school districts. It also appears the right for parents to “opt-out” their child from this testing is no longer on the table.

Despite the confusion PARCC testing initially raised, which was explained last week in part one of this series, the majority of Union County school districts have been in prep mode for more than a year and are ready to hit the ground running.

When the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers was created as a consortium of states that came together several years ago to develop high-quality computer based student assessments, it was not met with rousing support from the majority of educators and parents.

Although the impact of PARCC appeared to be isolated to a few school districts that failed to prepare in advance, it continues to receive media attention because this is the first time students will experience computerized testing.

Nevertheless, state department of education officials are solidly behind the consortium of states that believe PARCC testing increases student participation, and provides fair and equal opportunities to show what they know and are able to do.

Regardless of the backlash, PARCC testing is ready to kick off this spring and school districts have the computers and technology upgrades to support it. However, this new testing comes at a hefty cost for some school districts.

For some, the cost of not preparing ahead could pose a financial dilemma for districts and taxpayers. But, there is funding out there, according to PARCC’s website.

The consortium’s work is led by member states, which is funded through the four-year $185 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Whether any of that funding eventually filters down to local school districts, though, is unknown at this point. So far, no one has indicated where this money is going or if any will be allocated to the states involved in the consortium.

As of right now, school districts in Union County indicated they are on their own financially when it comes to providing the number of computers needed for testing and upgrading technology. Many prepared ahead of time to lessen the financial impact, while others did not. Regardless of whether school districts are ready or not, they have to use PARCC testing in March.

Last week, acting Commissioner David Hespe of the New Jersey Department of Education explained in a statement that state and federal regulations require at least 95 percent of students to take these exams, or school districts could potentially lose some “undefined funding.” He did not indicate what that funding was or what the impact could be financially to school districts.

Adding more confusion is that school districts and parents initially were led to believe a child could “opt-out” from PARCC testing but that does not appear to be an option any longer, according to Hespe. He made it clear in his Oct. 30 memo last week that every student had to participate in PARCC testing.

Hespe pointed out that the “No Child Left Behind Act of 2001,” along with other resolutions the state board passed this year, mandates that all students have to take state assessment testing. This includes PARCC, the acting commissioner said.

New Jersey Spotlight, which provides online insight into news and issues concerning the state, said Hespe’s memo suggested the “opt-out movement” spreading across the state would be a violation of state and federal regulations. Whether it is or not, the acting commissioner of education told school districts in his memo to stress there would be no alternative testing or educational instruction during the PARCC testing this spring.

“Since PARCC assessment is part of the state required educational program, schools are not required to provide an alternative educational program for students who do not participate in the statewide assessment,” Hespe said in his memo, explaining exactly what school districts should do if parents try to opt-out a student from testing.

“We encourage all chief school administrators to review the district’s discipline and attendance policies to ensure that they address situations that may arise during days that statewide assessments, such as PARCC, are being administered,” the acting commissioner said, stressing “the state expects students will sit for exams when they begin in March.”

“A good parallel is compulsory attendance,” the acting commissioner said, adding “Parents don’t have the option, students are supposed to go to school. The same with opting out, they don’t have that option.”

In Union, controversy over this new type of testing continues to surface. Parents have consistently maintained the district has not been forthcoming with information, but newly appointed Superintendent of Schools Gregory Tatum, who has been with the district since 2003, explained Tuesday the district is more than ready for PARCC testing.

“Ever since PARCC was first mentioned two years ago we have been preparing,” the superintendent stressed, adding that one of the first things the district did was ensure each school had additional computer labs.

“That was the hot button two years ago, and our goal was to see that each school had a minimum of two computer labs,” he said, explaining that with ten schools and 8,000 students that was a large expenditure but one that prepared the district for PARCC.
Tatum pointed out that over the last two years the district has been getting information from the state about PARCC testing in “bits and pieces,” which has not helped.

“Initially it was all about infrastructure and technology,” he said, but while the district may not have been discussing exactly what they have been doing publicly, they were preparing and laying groundwork for this new testing.

“The prep for this test did not begin in September. It began two years ago when PARCC first surfaced,” the superintendent said.
“I don’t want anyone to think we are taking this lightly. Believe me we are taking this seriously. We discuss it everyday. We would never want our students to be at a disadvantage. We want them to do well on this test,” Tatum stressed, but pointed out the school district cannot “opt-out,” they do not have a choice, they are required to give the PARCC testing.

“We are going to be ready, there is no doubt about it. We are almost there,” he said, adding that the district has more than enough internet bandwidth to support the testing.

As for the amount of money the Union school district has spent so far on preparing for this testing, Tatum could not provide a bottom line number but estimated that it was probably close to $1 million or more.

“I would have to go back over the last few years to get that number but suffice it to say that we have 10 schools, a minimum of two computer labs in each school, and laptops cost $1,000 each, so we are looking at a significant expenditure here,” the superintendent said.

Hillside Superintendent Frank Deo admitted it cost the school district “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to prepare for PARCC, but had not found the process overly stressful for the district or parents.

“It’s coming. We had to get ready for it,” he said, adding the school district with 3,100 students had been preparing for over a year for this new testing. This included conducting evening informational meeting for parents and five workshops for teachers.

“We’re working very hard to be prepared, but this is a whole new testing system,” Deo said, explaining that while there are concerns there could be a drop in how the district does overall when the PARCC testing results come out, this is nothing new.
“Anytime you have a change in testing, scores usually go down,” the superintendent added.

As for any indication there might be parents considering opting-out their child from the PARCC testing, Deo was very frank.
“We’re not encouraging opting out,” he said, adding the school district “needs a baseline to see where our students are at and that requires all our students to be tested.”

Linden School District Superintendent Dan Robertozzi also was open about how PARCC has impacted Linden, but stressed they were more than prepared.

“Last year we bought MacBook Air laptop computers for every student in the school district,” Robertozzi pointed out, which includes 6,245 students.

While he did not provide the exact cost of this financial expenditure, he did say the school district spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

“Last year we initiated a technology one-on-one program. One of the reasons we did this was because of the technology we knew the PARCC testing would require and we didn’t want our students to take the most important test of their school life on a computer they were not familiar with,” the superintendent explained. “Now we can just focus on the testing content because we are way ahead of the technology impact.”

Robertozzi said the Linden school district is going to have several informational seminars on PARCC for parents and teachers, but exactly when this would take place was still being discussed.

Robertozzi also felt school districts, in general, would have annual costs to factor into their budgets every year.
“It’s going to cost money every year but we’re spending this money on helping our students for the future,” he added, pointing out he felt PARCC testing would help school districts see exactly where students need help and where teachers needed to improve.

In Springfield, which has approximately 2,200 students, Schools Superintendent Mike Davino explained that last year the district initiated a one-on-one laptop computer purchase for grades 6 through 12, which laid the groundwork for PARCC testing.

“Even in the elementary schools we have a significant number of computers,” he added, pointing out that delaying things would not have helped because “PARCC isn’t going away.”

Davino was hopeful PARCC testing might put an end to comparing districts and move the focus to where students are doing good and what is going wrong. That way, he explained, the school district can adjust and change curriculum or the way educators are teaching a particular subject.

“I’ve always said if you don’t tell me what is wrong, how can we fix it,” he said, adding, “I need to know where we are doing well and where there is a need for improvement.”

“There is no stopping the PARCC testing,” Davino added emphatically, but said his school district is prepared and ready.

Kenilworth School Superintendent Scott Taylor explained while small school districts, like Kenilworth, with just 1,450 students, usually would be impacted by computerized testing because of the technology requirements, they are more than prepared.
“We didn’t have to buy any computers at all because we already have computer labs set up,” he said, adding the school district had everything they needed and “it hasn’t been an issue for us.”

The Elizabeth School District is also way ahead of the testing game, according to Don Goncalves, school board secretary and spokesperson for the district.

“We’ve already conducted PARCC testing because we were one of the state’s pilot districts,” he explained.
This school district was also ahead in planning for the financial impact PARCC testing would have on its 22,619 students, noting that in the 2014-2015 budget the district purchased 10,000 laptops so every student was prepared.

“When added to the inventory we already had, every single child from grade 3 through 12 has a laptop,” Conclaves said, but did not say how much the school district spent on this purchase, as most school districts did not.

“The purchase of computers was one of the most significant initiatives in our budget and was designed to prepare our children for PARCC to help create a true blended learning environment as well as for the marketplace overall,” he added.

NEXT WEEK: LocalSource will look into much of the backlash from parents who have big concerns about the PARCC testing.