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New Standardized Tests Raise Concerns, Hopes in Mount Olive

Mt. Olive Chronicle, March 11, 2015

MOUNT OLIVE TWP. – Lilly O'Connell had her mother's blessings when she became one of more than 100 district students who chose not to take a new and controversial test.

The test is known as the as "Partnership of Assessment for College and Careers" or PARCC. A seventh grader at the middle school, O'Connell said she just didn't see any good reason to take the PARCC test, which is required of most New Jersey students.

"It seems like everyone is making it a giant deal but it isn't," said the Budd Lake girl.

O'Connell is not alone in deciding against taking the test, which is designed to test students' problem-solving and thinking skills. The N.J. Education Association (NJEA) has taken a strong position against the PARCC tests while pending state legislation would delay using the test scores to rate teachers or placement of students for three years.

Several conservative governors and conservative groups also have opposed PARCC because it is aligned with the federal Common Core State Standards. The Common Core standards have the support of the Obama administration, although they were developed by a coalition convened by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Conservative Republicans have claimed that the Obama-supported standards are tantamount to a federal takeover of public schools.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) requires that all students be tested annually in language arts and mathematics in grades 3 to 11. To that end, previously, New Jersey students took the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJASK) and High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA). This year, both have been replaced with the PARCC.

Testing in Mount Olive began on Feb. 24 and will continue through March 20. As of Wednesday, Feb. 25, 66 sophomores and juniors had opted out of the test or about 14 percent of the total sophomores and juniors eligible to take the test. Seniors are not required to take the test.

A total of 55 or roughly the same percent of freshmen also did not take the test.

The total number of students throughout the district who didn't take the test won't be known until the end of the month. Schools Superintendent Larrie Reynolds said the district could lose state funding if more than 5 percent of the total enrollment refuses to be tested.

The tests were designed to gauge children's abilities to think and not simply their knowledge of facts. Reynolds said the tests also will make it easier to compare abilities of children locally and across the nation.

"(PARCC) is totally different than what we've done before," Reynolds said. "It requires a deeper level of knowledge. The fundamental question is how do you know your child is learning. That is the whole point of the assessment."

Reynolds said that while state legislation requires that all students take the PARCC, they will not be disciplined if they don't take the test.

Mother's Support

Lilly's mother, Tara-Lyn O'Connell, said she didn't try to change her daughter's mind. Mrs. O'Connell has been involved with a Facebook page that includes about 140 people against PARCC and she has spoken with teachers and others. But she said the main problem is that while there are sample test questions available no one has seen the actual tests.

O'Connell said her concern is that the tests haven't been tested enough to prove their validity. She also said she has heard the test is too difficult and asks children questions beyond their grade level abilities. If she's right, she said she worries that children who are learning at grade level might still be placed in remedial classes, based on the PARCC results.

If the tests can't be cancelled, O'Connell said use of the scores should be delayed for three years.

The Assembly passed legislation, A-4190, on Feb. 23 to delay the use of the PARCC assessment as a basis for student performance in teacher and principal evaluation and for purposes of graduation. The bill has not yet been considered in the Senate.

O'Connell also objects to using the test scores as a significant factor in teacher evaluations. PARCC mandates that 10 percent of a teacher's evaluation be based on student performance.

Last month, the NJEA began an advertising campaign opposing PARCC and standardized tests in general and how they can shape school curriculum, make students unnecessarily stressed, and lead to program cuts.

Lilly's father, Rob O'Connell, said he doesn't feel as strongly as his wife, in part, because he expects his daughter will score high on the PARCC assessment. But he said he feels there hasn't been enough public scrutiny and professional peer review of the tests. O'Connell also said the tests shouldn't be used to gauge teachers at least for a few years.

"We should let it settle in first," O'Connell said.

Tracey Severns is the district's director of student performance. She was previously chief academic officer for the state Department of Education where she was very involved in aligning PARCC testing to federal Common Core Standards, which were adopted by the state in 2010.

Severns said participation in state assessments is required by law, as it has been since the inception of state assessments more than 30 years ago. As a result of parents' concerns, the Mount Olive district has set guidelines for students who do not want to be tested.

Children can simply tell their teacher, principal or test proctor that they refuse to test. Parents also could send a note to Reynolds explaining their child's decision.

Students who are not testing will be assigned some other educational work to do during the testing period. The parent also could also remove the child from school during the testing periods but it would be marked as an absence, Severns said.

Severns said PARCC is designed to assess the degree to which students in grades 3 to 11 are "on track" to graduate with the knowledge and skills necessary to be college and career ready.

"PARCC seeks to measure students' ability to apply the knowledge and skills that they learn in class," Severns said. "It requires students to think in ways that previous assessments did not."

Severns said she has heard a variety of concerns expressed by parents regarding the PARCC assessment.

"Some of the concerns pertain to the instructional readiness of the students – they wonder if their child has been taught what they need to know in order to perform well on the assessment," Severns said. "Others are concerned about their child's technological readiness – they worry that their child may struggle with some of the tech-related aspects of the test (such as their ability to navigate from one piece of text to another or their ability to compose a written explanation on the computer)."

Severns also said that some parents' concerns seem to be the related to misinformation that has been circulating on the Internet.

"I think the best advice for anyone who has questions or concerns is to read through the information on the PARCC website and speak with their child's teacher or principal," she said.

Reynolds said the district will actually be relying less on the PARCC results in judging teacher performance. The prior NJASK and HSPT results counted for 35 percent of teacher evaluations, compared with 10 percent for PARCC.

Teachers will not be evaluated by scores on PARCC tests but rather on the progress of students compared to prior years. That is why this year's tests won't be used for evaluations as there are no prior years for comparison, Reynolds said.