By Ron Leir
NORTH ARLINGTON –
A group of parents have formed “North Arlington Cares About Schools” to press their concerns about what they feel is a wrong-headed approach by the state to standardized testing of students.
NACAS hosted a panel discussion April 23 at the Knights of Columbus hall of various advocates opposed to “the over-use of high stakes standardized testing and the use of students scores [on these tests] to inform … student promotion, middle and high school admissions, graduation, hiring and firing of teachers and school closings.”
The local organizers of the group are Wanda Peguero, Amorliz Arce and Kelley Velez, all of whom have children attending borough schools.
Peguero said the group reached out to organizations like Save Our Schools NJ and United Opt Out, after being advised by the North Arlington public school district that children “are required to take” the NJASK (N.J. Assessment of Skills & Knowledge) test.
A posting on the North Arlington schools website notes: “Federal government requires districts to test – there is no way for parents to opt out. Schools need 95% subgroup participation; if not met, a corrective action plan will be imposed on schools. State DOE (Department of Education) indicates that parents may not opt out.” And, “… if a parent keeps a child home on testing and/or needed makeup days, these are unexcused absences.”
Grades 6 to 8 are being tested April 28 to May 1; grade 5, May 5-8; grade 4, May 12-16; and grade 3, May 12-15.
Panelist Jean McTavish, a Ridgewood resident and principal of the Edward Reynolds High School, New York, said Congress distributed $5 billion to districts nationwide to promote educational reform and, as a condition of getting the money, school districts have to collect and channel testing information to a “data warehouse.”
Now, McTavish said, as a further consequence of taking the money, school districts are compelled to use that data as a basis for “firing principals and closing schools. We have manufactured a crisis in public education. We’ve been told poverty is not an excuse – we’re to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.”
Former Assemblywoman Joan Voss, currently serving as Bergen County Freeholder, agreed, saying that, “People have been sold a bill of goods about the Common Core (standards set by N.J. Department of Education for student’s proficiency in math and language arts).”
A teacher for 45 years, Voss characterized the Common Core as “brainwashing” because it doesn’t take into account that children learn in different ways and forces kids to think the same way just to pass a test.
“Fort Lee is doing away with auto shop and culinary arts. Other kids can build things – they’re not into the pen and pencil stuff. Others are good with interpersonal relationships,” Voss said. But, instead of fostering “all kinds of learning,” New Jersey is doing things like “cutting music and art from the curriculum. We’re going to have a nation of dropouts because students can’t pass these tests. Kids become basket cases over these tests.”
“We’re doing our kids a tremendous disservice by overtesting them and by putting together a curriculum that’s not serving the needs of our kids. (Former Washington, D.C. Schools Chancellor) Michelle Rhee said the U.S. ranked 27th in education in the world. That’s ridiculous. We have a wonderful education system in place and we’re destroying it,” Voss said.
Another Ridgewood resident, panelist Susan Strutt, an assistant principal in New York, wondered what would happen when PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College & Careers), the replacement for NJASK, will be administered online in the 2014-2015 school year.
“The test is going to be given four times a year,” Strutt said. “How much instructional time is going to be spent on test prep?” Strutt said the Princeton school system “expects to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to sustain online testing.”
Then, too, suggested one educator in the audience, there’s the matter of how well students who may be not as sophisticated as their peers in technology application will fare when it comes to using computer skills.
And, said McTavish, there are still kinks to work out with the system. In New York schools, for example, “they experienced a long waiting time to get on the testing site.”
In fact, said panelist Susan Cauldwell, a former member of the Bernards Township Board of Education and a volunteer for Save Our Schools NJ, a state Department of Education survey indicates that “30% of New Jersey school districts are not yet PARCCready and that includes districts like Newark, Camden, Trenton, Jersey City – all the poor districts.”
Cauldwell said there are bills pending before the state legislature calling for a two-year delay on implementing PARCC testing and for a mandated notification of parents about pending state testing.
Two local elected officials also vented at the direction the state is going with its plans for education. Councilman Tom Zammatore said the Common Core and related testing “is being used as a tool to punish local districts. The bar is being set high and if you don’t attain it, you lose funding. Plus, charters [schools] get to pick and choose [their students]. That’s not fair when the money comes out of the public school system.”
And Mayor Peter Massa, a retired cop who has taught collegians criminal justice for the past 35 years, said: “I don’t think our policy makers know what’s going on in the real world. I see where some knucklehead in the legislature introduced a bill to close state schools with less than a 50% graduation rate. That’s crazy. He’s got to be unaware of the hardships a lot of these kids face paying tuition, working jobs and trying to support a family, health issues.”
The bottom line, for McTavish, is this: “The state is misusing a [testing] tool that is not designed for the purpose of evaluating teachers or teaching.”