UNION COUNTY, NJ — With the second round of PARCC testing about to begin in May, a deep divide remains between those who believe computerized testing will provide valuable information and those who are convinced it is doing harm.
The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers testing has raised the ire of both parents and educators throughout the state, with critics arguing preparation for PARCC has taken as much as 40 days away from classroom teaching due to the complexities of the online exam.
PARCC was created in 2010 as a consortium of states that came together to develop high-quality computer-based student assessments. The consortium’s work is led by member states and funded through a four-year $185 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
Although many of the states that originally signed on to the consortium decided to “opt-out” over the last few years, 12 remain, including New Jersey, which signed a $108 million contract with Pearson, the company administering the exam.
Pearson, the world’s largest testing company, also has come under fire because of the “billions” it could reap as a result of handling the exam in the United States in the first three years.
The company even made national news in 2013 when it was discovered that they tried to recruit people to score essays on state standardized tests through ads on Craig’s List in Texas.
Meanwhile, over the last year, New Jersey Department of Education Commissioner David Hespe has continued to try and dispel myths about PARCC. He explained the major complaint about the previous NJASK testing was it really did not provide information that could improve classroom instruction.
The DOE head said that while parents and teachers were able to discover from NJASK if a student was proficient in math and English, if they wanted to know anything beyond that, additional testing was required.
Hespe said this was a problem because students were leaving high school unprepared for college or a career. PARCC, he explained, was designed to provide more meaningful feedback to schools and parents so students were prepared for this journey into the future.
While previous generations of students grew up on tests relying heavily on rote memorization, multiple-choice questions and filling in test “bubbles,” PARCC questions were designed to measure critical thinking, problem solving and higher-order analytical skills. This, Hespe said, was what students will need throughout their school years and beyond.
A major hitch in the testing, and of concern to objecting parents and educators, has been that many school districts not only had to invest in additional computers and upgrade their broadband so the test could be delivered on time, but they also had to find a way for all students to take the test that can take up to 10 hours for high school students.
The controversy over PARCC even spurred several legislative hearings.
This eventually resulted in the assembly passing a bill requiring the state’s 581 school districts to accommodate all students who opted-out of the testing.
While the testing will not be used as a requirement for graduation, Hespe did say this could change after 2019.
On the other hand, New Jersey Education Association has been openly opposed to PARCC for many reasons, including that the results will count as 10 percent of a teacher’s annual evaluation.
Although the war between the DOE and NJEA has been ongoing for more than a year regarding all of the above issues, last week Hespe turned up the heat when he publicly warned that it is possible state and federal aid are withheld from school districts with high opt-out rates.
Adding fuel to the fire was Gov. Chris Christie’s warning to teachers and parents at a town hall meeting last week that penalties occurring as a result of opting out of PARCC will not just come from the state but federal government because federal money is connected to this testing.
Christie pointed out that if a school district fell below a certain threshold, sanctions could follow from the federal and state government.
“There is nothing I can do to stop you,” the governor told a Montclair parent who said her daughter had opted out of the test and would continue to do so as long as it was administered, “but then don’t complain later that you’re not getting the money that you are used to.
Christie made it clear that while he had no problem with anyone making “declarations of independence,” it could ultimately cause a problem.
“It’s a great country, but declarations of independence always have ramifications,” he said. He also has said in the past that this is just the first year of PARCC testing and he would like to see the results before deciding it does not work.
“If it turns out that it doesn’t work, then we’ll change it, just like we did with NJASK,” the governor said earlier this year, but he pointed out “it did not make sense to not be testing our children.”
NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer demanded Hespe retract his threat to withhold state aid from districts where parents “followed their conscience” and refused PARCC testing for their children.
“This is a deeply disappointing development,” said Steinhauer, noting “it is clear the department of education is distressed that parents across the state have turned against its efforts to impose more and more harmful and unnecessary high-stakes standardized tests on their children.”
“But threats and intimidation are utterly inappropriate,” the NJEA president said, adding the department of education needed to listen to parents, not threaten their children’s schools. “It should stop attacking parents with their own tax dollars.”
This is not the first time the state Department of Education warned school districts they could lose some of their Title 1 funding if they did not meet the 95 percent participation rate on the PARCC online testing.
Hespe, though, said any decision on withholding state funding would be made on a case-by-case basis in “an egregious situation.”
Officials at the state department of education said last week that the DOE has the authority to withhold funding to any school district that fails to comply with state or federal laws.
Hespe has not backed down regarding this issue, noting after he testified at a New Jersey Assembly Budget Committee hearing on PARCC a few weeks ago that the state is taking this testing very seriously, even if a school district does not receive federal funding.
The commissioner of education also said his department will do whatever is necessary to ensure there is a 95 percent participation rate from school districts moving forward. And if they still do not cooperate?
Hespe said the first step would be a corrective action plan, which could require schools to hold more informational seminars about PARCC, as well as holding one-on-one meetings with parents who want to opt-out their children from the controversial testing.
Before funding is withheld, the DOE would look closely at whether a school district previously missed the 95 percent participation testing rate in the past.
School districts, even prior to PARCC, were required by the federal law “No Child Left Behind” to have a 95 percent participation in annual testing.
Hespe told the Assembly Budget Committee that there more than likely will be school districts that miss the 95 percent participation target, but it was entirely too early to determine anything at this point because testing was still under way.
Unofficial numbers for the first round of PARCC testing set the rate of students not participating in the testing at between 3 and 14 percent. Last week Hespe noted that 98 percent of those who did take the test statewide completed it on computers, which was expected to be a problem from the outset.
Although the opt-out issue continues to be of concern, Steinhauer said he has been concerned about the technical glitches that occurred with the first round of PARCC testing in March, pointing out “no teacher’s career, no student’s class participation and no school’s reputation should ride on whether the computers are working well on testing days.”
However, he did not hold out much hope for the future of computerized testing.
“PARCC might fix its many technical glitches. It might even make tests that are less absurdly confusing and difficult to navigate. Districts might fix their technology infrastructure so that students have less trouble logging on and completing the tests. But there is no fix for the problems created when we set the stakes so high that the real purpose of education is lost,” said the NJEA president in a statement.
“Lower the stakes and let kids learn,” he added.