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Opinion: Is Making Peace with PARCC an Idea Whose Time Has Come?

The results of standardized tests, which revealed the yawning gulf between rich and poor students, played a key role in the Abbott rulings

laura waters
Laura Waters

New Jersey has administered annual standardized tests peacefully for 15 years, but this year’s spring ritual was scarred by dissension that engaged teacher union leaders, school boards, parents, Department of Education officials, and legislators. It’s PARCC, of course, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, that is the fulcrum of discord. We can do better next year if we’re mindful of New Jersey’s testing history, steer clear of political pretext, and keep a clear-eyed focus on the needs of all our schoolchildren.

PARCC is not New Jersey’s traditional basic-skills test like the erstwhile ASK or HSPA. Instead, it’s a computerized assessment aligned with the Common Core State Standards, the set of education objectives that New Jersey adopted five years ago. The state has long realized the importance of quantifying student academic growth. In fact, our famous school-funding Abbott cases, first litigated by the Education Law Center 30 years ago, are largely based on disparities in test scores between poor and wealthier students. “Children who live in poverty,” Chief Justice Robert Wilentz wrote in 1990, “live in a culture where schools, studying, and homework are secondary.” He concluded, “their test scores …indicate a severe failure of education.”

If during the 1990s suburban parents had opted their children out of state tests and undermined disaggregated data, if the NJEA had created the narrative of suburban oppression that drives much of its anti-testing propaganda, then the ELC might have lost the Abbott cases. The State Supreme Court was convinced of the merits of the ELC’s argument, of “the depth of that failure” and “inadequate performance” of poor urban districts, at least partially because of test data.

It’s worth noting that, while the ELC’s stance on education reform issues typically echoes that of NJEA and Save Our Schools-NJ, it is has been less visible in anti-PARCC activities. The ELC instead aligns itself with major civil rights groups that last month asserted their support for Common Core-aligned annual assessments like PARCC. Signatories included the NAACP, La Raza, Children’s Defense Fund, and National Disability Rights Network.

Meanwhile, schoolchildren have emerged unscathed from the first of two PARCC testing periods, but the rhetoric is ratcheting up ever higher, driven by union leaders’ distaste for tenure laws that link teacher evaluations to student outcomes on standardized tests.

Last weekend at a conference of a new group founded by evangelist Diane Ravitch, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis called for a national teachers strike to protest, among other things, annual standardized testing aligned with the Common Core. The president of the NEA, NJEA’s parent, tweets “NEA fully supports parents & our affiliates that #optout of tests.” The NJ Badass Teachers Association celebrates, "what we are seeing in New Jersey is tantamount to a parent revolution.”

Most troubling, the anti-testing lobby is posturing test refusals as some sort of Thoreauvian act of civil disobedience. But parents who opt out their children aren’t breaking any laws; they’ve always been free to decline student assessments. And undermining efforts to unmask achievement gaps between the rich and poor, between the minority and white, isn’t civil disobedience; it’s civic disengagement.

That’s not a lesson any parent wants to teach his or her child.

It’s time for a truce, and there’s much that leaders in opposing camps can do to foster peace.

Let’s start with New Jersey’s DOE, which can tamp down the anti-PARCC fever by rethinking some regulatory issues. According to the state’s teacher-tenure law, student outcomes are supposed to inform 30 percent of teacher evaluations, but last year Gov. Chris Christie, in order to derail revolt among union-friendly legislators, issued an Executive Order that shrunk the weighting to 10 percent for this year, 20 percent for next year, and then up to the full 30 percent in 2017. On Monday state senators Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), two of the most educationally fluent members of the Legislature, proposed that the 10 percent weighting be sustained for an additional year. That’s a reasonable compromise that offers unions solace and reformers continuity.

Before PARCC, a requirement for a NJ high school diploma was a passing grade on the HSPA state-standardized tests. Students who failed several times qualified for an alternative assessment. For example, 79 percent of Camden High School students failed the math HSPA in 2013. The PARCC tests are harder and failure rates will go up. The ELC argued successfully that requiring PARCC passage for graduation would “cause graduation rates to plummet,” so the DOE offered alternative pathways to graduation: until 2019, students can substitute SAT scores (400 on both math and verbal), PSATs, ACT scores, or portfolios.

Hence, high school students don’t have to take the PARCC tests as long as they’re taking college entrance exams, so 14.5 percent opted out, mostly in affluent suburban districts. The DOE may want to revisit this loophole.

The DOE can also take the lead in urging school districts to eliminate redundant testing and consider whether the administration of PARCC can be compressed into one testing window instead of two, especially since schools reported that students finished the tests more quickly than predicted.

In the State House, legislators who proposed bills that facilitate test refusals or PARCC moratoria should rethink whether they’re supporting student growth or pandering to lobbyists.

And NJEA, badass or not, can try to separate its fury at Christie and New Jersey’s pension debacle from meaningful concerns about annual standardized testing. Certainly, we can improve the integration of instruction and assessment. Certainly, we should examine issues of overtesting in schools. Certainly, we should be cautious about the impact of test scores on teacher evaluations.

But, as we work to find the right balance, let’s keep the focus on the children, not the adults.

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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