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State’s Largest Teachers Union: Families Have Right to Opt Out of New Testing

NJEA releases results of polls that a large majority of parents believe preparation wastes valuable classroom time

NJEA testing

The New Jersey Education Association -- representing the vast majority of the state’s 200,000 teachers -- yesterday ramped up its opposition to the coming PARCC tests, even promoting what it called parents’ rights to have their children refuse to take the state tests altogether.

But in an online press conference the union’s leadership stopped short of saying it would encourage teachers to offer or discuss the opt-out option to students and parents -- saying only that such a decision rests with individual families.

“NJEA supports the parents rights to make the decision for their children about the test and get the best education for their children,” said Wendell Steinhauer, president of the NJEA.

When asked specifically whether the union would support children opting out, he repeated: “At the end of the day, it is the parents prerogative to choose what is best for their child.”

The morning webinar was ostensibly to announce new polling by the NJEA of New Jersey voters and parents that found vast majorities opposed to new standardized testing -- or old standardized testing for that matter.

The polling was conducted in December of 800 voters, including 200 parents, and then another 200 parents by the Mellman Group in Washington D.C., and it found staggering majorities against the testing in general and specifically to a host of questions.

  • Are teachers forced to teach to the test? More than 80 percent said they were.

  • Does it take away valuable instructional time? Almost 80 percent said “yes.”

  • Do you favor or oppose reducing the use of standardized test? More than 70 percent said “favor.”

The numbers were not terribly different from some national polls that have found support for new testing to be as low as 25 percent. But as with any polling, the responses can also depend on how the questions are asked, and some of the starkest responses were to questions focusing on the criticisms of testing rather than the purported benefits.

Either way, the NJEA’s poll also found large numbers of respondents still not terribly cognizant of the new testing or the Common Core State Standards that are driving it. Almost 60 percent of respondents in the parent polling knew little or none at all about PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers).

On the eve of the Christie administration’s public hearings on the state’s assessment system -- the first of was postponed by today’s blizzard -- the NJEA announcement was a notable show of force that the union’s membership and its lobbyists would not go down quietly on the issue. The issue has been an especially barbed one for the union, since its members will start to be evaluated in the next year based on student progress on the PARCC tests.

It was also notable for the clear allies in the cause, led by the Save Our Schools NJ group that has spearheaded most of the anti-testing criticism so far, along with the Education Law Center and the national FairTest organization.

The NJEA’s stance comes as other large education associations in the state have banded together to help districts move to the new tests, under the name “We Raise NJ.” The group includes New Jersey associations representing school boards, principals, superintendents, and local PTAs.

NJEA officials said they have a “bill of rights” ready to be filed as a legislative bill, once they nail down a sponsor. In that measure, state testing would be scaled back considerably, limited to no more than once in each of elementary, middle, and high school, with this year’s PARCC serving as only a pilot, with no consequences attached, they said.

But most contentious may be the union’s proposal for explicit agreements that students refusing to take the tests not only be free of any discipline but also offered alternative programs during the testing period.

It’s still unclear how big the opt-out movement is, but SOSNJ leaders said nearly 5,000 people have joined as members of the Facebook page promoting the option. It clearly has state officials worried enough that they have put out their own guidance to districts.

“We have never seen such a groundswell from parents coming from all over the state and political persuasions,” said Susan Cauldwell, executive director of SOSNJ Community Organizing, the group’s nonprofit. “Parents feel this tests is taking them to a place they have not been before. It is not necessary, it is too expensive, and it diverts time.”

Still, the NJEA said it was not leading this charge, and SOSNJ leaders were happy to take the mantle.

“It is very important that parents take the lead on this,” said Cauldwell.

The Christie administration yesterday took a low profile on the topic, since it was forced to postpone at least one of the three upcoming hearings due to the weather.

Still, it put out talking points intended to address the criticisms, including arguments that the testing is aimed to better guide instruction and bring more accountability to schools and teachers.

At the same time, the administration released some of the first information on the costs of the new testing and the state’s contract with Pearson PLC, the New jersey-based company that will administer the test in a dozen states nationwide.

Under the four-year contract, the state will pay Pearson up to a “base amount” of $108 million for testing of Grades 3 through 11. But state officials said the final amount has yet to be settled, and could either go below that total or above.

“The NJDOE chose only the options that worked for New Jersey in the first year, and conservatively set the pricing tiers,” said David Saenze, a spokesman for the state DOE. “Consequently, the costs for PARCC are expected to be less than the overall base amount, but they could fluctuate based on the ultimate decisions we choose and the corresponding pricing.”

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