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Opinion: Don’t Fall for the Opt-Out Cop-Out

NJ’s kids deserve demanding standardized tests, and we all need the data they deliver

laura waters
Laura Waters

Upholding ethical principles in Trenton’s State House is no game for wimps. Legislators in the Assembly and the Senate are relentlessly hounded by lobbyists to sponsor and support bills specific to special-interest groups and lately it seems that much of this legislation is about New Jersey’s public education system. Certainly, our elected representatives share noble aspirations of educational equity. Nonetheless, it must be tempting to succumb to special interests.

That appears to be what has happened with A-4165, just passed unanimously by the Assembly and now headed to the Senate floor. The proposed law, sponsored by Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) and commonly known as the “opt-out” bill, makes it easy for parents to refuse all standardized testing for their kids, including the new PARCC assessments that replace NJ’s obsolete ASK and HSPA tests.

Why would an elected official, especially one who prides himself on his educational acumen (Diegnan is chair of the Assembly Education Committee) propose a bill that undermines the ability of school districts and the state to disaggregate data that, in turn, allows us to focus resources on the educational needs of poor children and those with disabilities? That data, derived from the standardized tests that Diegnan would deem optional, is the one assailable benefit of No Child Left Behind.

Kati Haycock wrote on this site, “civil rights and disabilities communities know from long experience that children who are not tested don’t count.” A-4165 would render us unaccountable to disenfranchised children.

That can’t be Diegnan’s intent. But his opt-out bill invites the perception that he’s pandering to deep-pocketed lobbyists and sponsoring legislation that ignores the needs of kids who historically don’t count.

About those deep-pocketed lobbyists: The NJEA, one of Diegnan’s top campaign contributors, has been wildly backtracking on its erstwhile support for data-infused teacher evaluations and just completed a $15 million TV ad campaign against PARCC assessments. The union also hosts a website devoted to the demise of the tests. Save Our Schools-NJ blithely propagates misinformation like the tests will “place confidential data at risk to be shared or sold for profit-making purposes.”

In January a chief NJEA lobbyist explained to NJ Spotlight that Diegnan’s opt-out bill was just part of a package of antitesting legislation; she said, “It’s not going to be just one bill. We’re now sorting out what is out there and seeing what needs to be amended … Bills are out there, and I think you will see more.”

SOS-NJ triumphantly exclaimed on its Facebook page last week, “Thanks to your efforts, the four bills to limit high-stakes standardized testing passed the New Jersey Assembly with overwhelming bipartisan support. Now it is time for the New Jersey Senate to act!”

But maybe Assemblyman Diegnan thinks that his obligation is only to his constituents in the 18th legislative district in Middlesex County. The residents in the 18th district are mostly white (0.2 percent black, 9.1 percent Hispanic) and mostly well-to-do. That demographic happens to comprise much of the PARCC opt-out movement. NJEA Spokesman Steve Wollmer helpfully explains that “the vast majority of opt-outs are taking place in non-urban, non-disadvantaged districts because parents tend to be better informed in those districts and tend to communicate among themselves a lot more.”

So Diegnan is just serving his base, regardless of the impact of his bill on families who can’t afford to live towns like East Brunswick or Metuchen. Welcome to New Jersey’s fragmented and segregated education system.

For comparison’s sake, Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) represents NJ’s 29th District and chairs the Senate Education Committee; she’s Diegnan’s counterpart in the other chamber of the State House. Most of her constituency lives in Newark (she also represents Belleville, a diverse and working-class township). Here’s what she told NJTV about the value of standardized testing in general and PARCC in particular: “Are we ready to raise the bar and not be afraid of not getting it in the first year but reinvesting, supporting, circling back, having conversations about changing policies, restructuring. Are we ready to take it to the next level? And I am committed to doing that as chair of the Education Committee, to working with the DOE and every singled stakeholder group that’s here,” she said.

New Jerseyans committed to educational equity and fairness for all children live in hope that the Senate will indeed “take it to the next level,” and remember that they represent all NJ schoolchildren, not just well-heeled constituents and lobbyists. A-4165 is a glob of oleaginous pander. Please, senators, raise the bar.

Laura Waters writes about education politics and policy for NJ Spotlight and other publications. She also blogs at NJ Left Behind and has been a school board member in Lawrence Township (Mercer County) for 10 years.

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