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Opting Out of NJ ASK

John Mooney | April 27, 2012

It's still a tiny minority but a small group of parents -- themselves educators -- are keeping their kids home during the state's assessment tests.

As hundreds of thousands of New Jersey schoolchildren sit down for state testing over the course of the next month, NJ Spotlight came upon at least three families who are sitting this one out.

Particularly notable: They are teachers and administrators themselves, past and present. And each said that's part of the reason they've decided to opt out their kids, having seen how pervasive testing has become in schools where they’ve worked.

“Educators have to be first with this,” said Maryann Reilly, a Ringwood mother, education consultant, former school administrator in Newark, Hackensack , and most recently assistant superintendent in Morristown.

“If people on the inside aren’t doing this, how can we expect our neighbors to,” she said.

In her case, Reilly said it was a growing sense that enough was enough that led her and her husband -- a Franklin Lakes English teacher -- to keep their 13-year-old son at home for this week’s NJ Assessment of Skills and Knowledge, better known as NJ ASK.

Every student from Grades 3 to 8 goes through four days of NJ ASK over the course of the next month, being tested on language arts and math.

“He has taken it since third grade, and we just decided this year, it was enough,” Reilly said. “We don’t value the measure, and we don’t get anything useful from it.

“We’re hoping people will wake up and see it is just not appropriate anymore,” she said.

Will Richardson, a prominent consultant and blogger on technology and education and former teacher at Hunterdon Central High School, has long espoused that testing has gone overboard. He said it is not just judging kids on misguided notions of learning, but also schools and even teachers in ways never intended. And this year, his 12 year old son will also be opting out.

“The research shows us that it is just not a valid measure of what is happening in the classroom,” Richardson said. “We just felt it was time to take a stand “

Nationally or in New Jersey, there is no reliable estimate of the number of families who hold back their children from testing for philosophical and educational reasons. But with the help of the Internet, it is an idea that certainly has stirred the passions and garnered attention with a National Opt-Out Day in January and a range of websites and Facebook pages dedicated to the cause.

In New Jersey last year, about 1,800 out of the 600,000 students enrolled in the NJ ASK -- or roughly 0.3 percent -- were marked absent for at least one section. But the reasons aren’t tabulated, officials said -- whether it's a conscious decision, an illness, or even error.

When contacted for this story, state and local districts had little to say, not wanting to promote the idea too much.

A spokesman for the state Department of Education said there is no statewide protocol for sitting out the tests. Although the testing is required of schools, it is a local decision whether a student receives an excused or unexcused absence, said Justin Barra, the department’s communications director.

Both Reilly and Richardson said their children received excused absences.

The one exception is the state’s high school test, now given in 11th grade, which students must by law pass if they are to graduate. Otherwise, it’s more that the law doesn’t speak to it, rather than prohibits it.

“There is no provision in federal or state law in New Jersey for students to voluntarily not take the test,” Barra said in an email.

He and others maintained that the assessments are part of a child’s education, and that there could be consequences if enough children sat out. Under both federal and state laws, a school is required to have 95 percent of its students taking the assessments, a move that was taken to keep schools from purposefully excluding students who may not test well.

“This data is a crucial resource for all of us as we work to ensure that all of our students are on track to graduate from high school college- and career-ready,” Barra said.

And that's the problem for the parents who have decided to opt out: the tests have been misused to gauge students for their test-taking skills but not learning.

Reilly, a former literacy director in Newark and then assistant superintendent in Hackensack as well as Morristown, said it has clearly led to a narrowing of curriculum that is only harming students. She is now a consultant in coaching teachers, including in New York City.

“People don’t know what their children are no longer doing in school,” she said. “I’m hoping people will stand up and say this isn’t appropriate any more.”

Richardson said this isn’t a protest against his hometown schools in Delaware Township, saying they were responsive to his request. He said if it imperiled their attendance record for the tests, he may even think twice.

“But our son has taken them for four years, and for four years, the tests haven’t told us anything,” he said. “I already know what his proficiencies are. This has gone over the top and is just hurting kids.”

Jean McTavish, principal of Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School in New York City, has traveled to Washington D.C to lobby policymakers there about the damage being done by testing.

And as a resident of Ridgewood, a town noted for its public schools, she this year notified the public schools that both her children would stay home. That will amount to eight days out of school, if makeup days are included, and she said a Ridgewood administrator even threatened her with truancy charges.

But she’s undaunted, and wrote a lengthy post on the “United Opt-Out” website explaining her decision.

“As educators and as parents, we have to take a stand and just say no,” she said in an interview yesterday. “This testing is leading to a very, very poor education.”

She was asked what would happen if all her students in New York City sat out, and McTavish said high-stakes testing in high school poses a different issue. By law in New York, as well as New Jersey, the students wouldn’t graduate without the test.

“This is a personal decision, and every parent needs to make it for themselves,” she said. “For me, [NJ ASK] isn’t high stakes like that. To be honest, I doubt even the district uses these results.”

McTavish and the others conceded they are a tiny minority, but said it has start somewhere.

“We have to realize as parents, we are the key,” McTavish said. “It needs to start with the Moms and Dads.”

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