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Op-Ed: Opting Out of PARCC Tests Is a Serious Decision, Not a Serious Mistake

Some one-third of the students in the Livingston district chose not to take new online exams, for reasons that should be respected

jim o'neill
Jim O'Neill

A number of New Jersey newspapers have written editorials criticizing the “opt out of PARCC” movement.

About two-thirds of Livingston students took the test but since the Livingston Public Schools had about 33 percent of the eligible students opt out, I feel obligated to respond to these editorials for the residents who support our schools but decided, for a variety of reasons, that students would not take the test.

I am sorry to say the critics of “opt out” are either looking at PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) in a one-dimensional way or have engaged in an extremely shallow reading of the issues. Most of the high opt-out rates were in high-performing districts where thousands of students take the most rigorous courses along with multiple tests: PSAT, SAT, ACT, and Advanced Placement. Do we really think that students heading to some of the most prestigious universities in the nation are afraid of taking one more test?

In spite of the clamor for a more rigorous test, a widely known fact in college admission offices is that the single best indicator of how a student will do in college is his/her high school grades. Yes, in spite of the dramatic differences in subject areas, teacher personalities, and grading practices, the most consistent predictor of how well a student will do in college is the student’s high school grades. But the state would have us believe the Chamber of Commerce and Pearson know better.

No one is afraid of a more rigorous program and more demanding assessment instruments. But rather than argue the validity of the test and the debatable ways the test results will be used, the DOE has decided not to engage in a discussion about the complexity of issues surrounding PARCC but to simply demean the conscientious objectors. For the first time ever we had tens of thousands of students opt out of a state test. When did we decide it is un-American or anti-intellectual to challenge the status quo? How do we know the questions raised are not legitimate?

The test spanned over nine days, which does not account for the tremendous amount of time it took administrators to prepare for the test, move computers, and schedule proctors. Nine days is 5 percent of the 180-day school year. Is this really the best way to spend so many precious hours? Valid tests typically run pilots for two or three years so faulty or poorly worded questions can be deleted or modified. The goal is to prove the question is valid before we determine the student answering the question is wrong.

The widely respected SAT often pilots questions eight or more times before the question counts. In the case of PARCC, however, apparently no pilot is necessary. The state and the test company insist parents and schools will get more detailed information; what assurances do we have that the information is accurate? Beyond this, the state will label schools, report student progress, and most egregiously use test results to classify teachers on a spectrum from high quality down to unacceptable.

In a broader context why should 590 districts have student and teaching evaluations dictated by a DOE that, by its own metrics, has not been successful in the running state-controlled districts for 20-plus years?

What profession is judged by a test? It is naïve to think that a test can reflect the complexity of high-quality teaching. Great teachers are extraordinary human beings who inspire students to love learning, not facts. Great teachers motivate students to challenge ideas not accept them blindly. Teaching is a delicate balance of art and science. It is insulting and demeaning to think the complexity of teaching can be captured in a test score.

One of the real problems in many schools is that they don’t engage in healthy intellectual discussions/debates about policies and practices. If the DOE was focused on quality education and determined that PARCC is the holy grail of testing, they would welcome the challenge from opt-out parents rather than label the objections as trivial.

Jim O'Neill is the interim superintendent of the Livingston Public Schools system.

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