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15 Percent of 11th-Graders Refused to Take First Round of PARCC Tests in March

Opt-out rate was as low as 3 percent statewide in state’s elementary schools

Credit: Grace Moylan, NJPSA
NJ Commissioner of Education David Hespe

A precise count of the number of New Jersey students who refused to take the new PARCC exam last month remains an elusive target.

But state now says the “opt-out” rate ranged from 3 percent in the elementary schools to 15 percent among students in their junior year of high school, according to memos sent to school districts yesterday by the Christie administration.

State officials said they wanted to give school officials additional information for when they talk to families about the controversial standardized tests.

And they said they view the percentages as a positive sign, given the intense debate over the testing that has gripped the education establishment for several months.

“Our goal is to have these numbers much smaller,” said state Education Commissioner David Hespe in an interview. “But given the context, and the millions spent on PARCC, and the concerns about its administration, and it being a brand-new test, we were very encouraged by the numbers in especially the youngest grades.”

Hespe blamed the higher opt-out rates in the high schools to some mixed messages -- including from the state itself – about the importance of the tests. The state has delayed making PARCC a graduation requirement.

But he expressed satisfaction that the families of the youngest students had clearly bought in to the PARCC exams.

“They voted with their feet,” Hespe said.

Still, Hespe didn’t downplay the public-relations challenge that has emerged around the controversial testing.

“Clearly we have work to do,” he said.

With 900,000 students statewide, it’s difficult to calculate a total number of opt-outs based on the information the state released yesterday.

And state officials weren’t helping. Hespe stressed that the data remains fluid, preventing such a count, and his staff refused to release more precise numbers to explain how they came up with percentages.

Here are the exact “opt-out” percentages, according to the state:

  • 3.8 percent of students in districts that include grades 3-6, in both language arts and math

  • 4.6 percent of students in districts that serve grades 3-8

  • 7 percent in 9th grade, in both language arts and Algebra I

  • 14.5 percent in 11th grade in both language arts and Algebra II

Based on rough math off the total number of students taking the tests in each grade each year, the various estimates that have put the “opt-out” total as high as 50,000 students statewide – including one estimate by the state’s largest teachers union -- don’t appear too far off.

State officials said they will provide a more precise count after the second phase of this year’s testing, which starts in two weeks.

Others in the state’s education community said it was clearly a significant number.

“I am shocked they consider these as low numbers,” said Steve Baker, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, which has launched a multi-million-dollar media campaign critical of the testing.

“Whatever they say, this is what we do know: a massive number of parents opted out or refused this test,” Baker said. “And that number is only going to rise.”

Indeed, the next question is whether more families and students will opt out of the testing as it moves to its second phase in May.

The second round of testing will focus more on measuring end-of-year knowledge; the first phase, administered in March, was geared more toward skills such as writing and problem solving.

In memos sent to districts yesterday, state officials said students who participated in the first round but opt out of the second round of testing will not receive reports on their overall results. Likewise, those who opted out of the first round of testing and decide to participate in the second round will also not see data on their results.

“These are not two separate tests,” said assistant education commissioner Bari Erlichson, who has been the administration’s point person on the PARCC testing. “If they take one and not the other, it is still not completing the test.”

The release of the data came as Gov. Chris Christie himself continued to give mixed signals about his own position on the testing – and, specifically, the Common Core State Standards that are the centerpiece of the testing.

In the past few months, he has expressed everything from “serious” to “grave” concerns.

This week, the latest version came in comments Christie made in New Hampshire, which the governor is visiting in the ramp-up to his expected run for the Republican nomination for the presidential nomination.

According to the New Hampshire Union Leader: "I’m open to changing it because it’s not working in New Jersey," he said. The implementation, which he said first took place under former Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat, was difficult, according to Christie. He said one challenge is the lack of buy-in from parents, teachers and administrators. He said state-specific standards, like New Jersey had before, could be the go-to alternative.

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