By Ron Leir
The N.J. Department of Education has adopted a “no opt-out” policy for the administration of its newly mandated PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) online test for grades 3 to 11.
But it has left the implementation and enforcement of that policy up to the discretion of local school districts.
And while school districts in The Observer coverage area have (some more strongly than others) encouraged participation – since they risk having some of their fderal aid sliced if too few students take the test – many parents have instructed their kids to refuse to take it.
Since the test is administered to different grades over different times during a multi-week period, it is difficult to secure precise figures on the number of students who have opted out.
But, based on phone interviews with various district officials, it is clear that many students in Kearny and Lyndhurst, primarily on the secondary level, did not partake.
In Kearny, where testing – as in most districts – began March 2 and was due to continue through March 27, there were reportedly as many as 400 high school students opting out in the early going.
KHS Principal Al Gilson declined to confirm that figure and referred The Observer to Superintendent Patricia Blood, who said she’d heard there were “a lot of sophomores” among those sitting out the test, but she couldn’t provide actual figures.
“We had a handful in our elementary schools,” Blood said.
Blood reasoned that some parents read or heard information on the internet or in the media that the questions posed by the PARCC were too difficult, that it was unfair to subject their kids to it and that concern spread by word of mouth.
“I think it just snowballed,” she said.
Parents should realize, Blood said, that the PARCC “does give us valuable information” about areas where students are weak and that it will take three years for the PARCC phase-in.
In any case, Blood said, parents who did not want their kids taking the test were asked to “notify the district in writing” and on testing days, their kids “were provided an alternate setting” where they could do school-related work.
Some of the students who did take the PARCC “reported back to their teachers that the test was not as difficult as the test samples they had been exposed to for practice,” Blood said.
At the same time, she said, those students were saying that there appeared to be more types of test problems that relied on students’ “critical thinking” skills, rather than simply multiple-choice questions.
On the technical end, Blood said that everything was “smooth running. The only glitch was on the first day, and it was on the Pearson [the test distributor] end,” but she said it was quickly remedied and did not interfere with the testing itself.
In Lyndhurst, Schools Superintendent Tracey Marinelli said the district had a “seemless transition” to the PARCC. “There were no glitches and our kids were prepared – students arrived at the high school with their iPads fully charged and ready to go and our elementary school kids took the test in their computer labs,” she said.
There were, however, “quite a few opt-outs,” Marinelli said. Of the district’s 200 third-graders, 10 did not take the test; of 1,000 students in grades 4 to 8, 91 opted out; and of about 550 kids in grades 9 to 11, 155 sat out the test, she said.
Although the district sought to educate parents about the test and offered practice sessions, Marinelli said that there was an “active campaign” by some who had concerns about the PARCC.
In Harrison, Personnel Director James Doran said the district experienced a “very good” implementation of the test, with only “a couple of computer glitches but the students didn’t lose any of the work.” And “about a dozen” students were instructed by their parents not to take the test, he said.
Newly installed Belleville Schools Superintendent Richard Tomko reported that despite some serious computer infrastructure issues previously encountered by the district, “all of our schools have the equipment needed for the testing on track.”
Adapting to the technology “was a little bit of a learning curve for our teachers,” Tomko said, “but we made sure that we had extra IT support on hand for the first day of testing to get us through.”
By Tomko’s reckoning, the district had 270 students who opted out that first day and they were “evenly distributed throughout the district.”
“I don’t have a strong hold on why that happened,” Tomko said. “I assume that parents read something negative about the test on an internet posting or elsewhere.” Before the PARCC was administered, Tomko said he met with PTO leaders in an effort to dispel any fears about the test.
Nutley Board of Education President Charles Kucinski said the district was “more than prepared” for the PARCC, having set aside between $300,000 and $400,000 annually for the past three years to acquire sufficient numbers of computers and technical equipment to accommodate the new testing protocol and ensuring that “our teachers were comfortable” with the testing environment.
“A couple of glitches” developed with computers which Kucinski attributed to the state connection.
As for opt-outs, Kucinski said that, “according to the last count the superintendent (Russell Lazovick) gave us, there were 20 throughout the district.” The purpose of the PARCC, Kucinski said, “is really to assess what students might not know and make adjustments annually” so the aim is to achieve “positive results.”
Prior to the test, Kucinski said administrators “met with parents offline with the expectation that they could enlighten them, not frighten them.”