Administration Moves to Make Sure All Seats Filled for PARCC Tests

Hespe memo suggests that opt-out movement for online testing would be a violation of state and federal regulations

PARCC online testing
In the end, the number of New Jersey families opting out of state tests last year may not be a big one, but it’s enough that the Christie administration is taking the offensive with the advent of the new online PARCC tests this spring.

Acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe last week put out a memo to school districts to remind them that the law and regulations call for students to be tested, and to make clear that the state expects students will sit for the exams when they begin in March.

“A good parallel is compulsory attendance,” Hespe said on Friday. “Parents don’t have the option, students are supposed to go to school. The same with [opting out], they don’t have that option.”

Still, as the state prepares for the advent of the PARCC (Partnership of Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) exams and there is at least some talk of families protesting with their feet, the state isn’t dictating what districts should do to address those who refuse. Hespe only said there is no requirement that schools provide these students any extra accommodations, and districts should revisit their policies.

“Since the PARCC assessment is part of the State required educational program, schools are not required to provide an alternative educational program for students who do not participate in the statewide assessment,” he wrote.

“We encourage all chief school administrators to review the district’s discipline and attendance policies to ensure that they address situations that may arise during days that statewide assessments, such as PARCC, are being administered.”

Hespe said that state and federal regulations require at least 95 percent of students take the exams, or districts could potentially lose some undefined funding. Most of all, Hespe said, he wanted to point to the importance and benefits of the state assessments for individual students and their schools.

“The PARCC assessments will, for the first time, provide detailed diagnostic information about each individual student’s performance that educators, parents and students can utilize to enhance foundational knowledge and student achievement,” Hespe wrote.

Nothing in the memo was new, but the notification was an unusual one and comes as attention turns to the new online PARCC tests starting across all districts next spring.

“We do this now and again to remind districts of the legal structure, and provide them greater guidance as they have these conversations with their communities and families,” Hespe said on Friday.

Last spring, what appeared to be at least hundreds of New Jersey families campaigned about the so-called opt-out movement, which has gained ground in other districts as well.

Even the threat of the opt-out movement prompted districts to seek guidance from the state as to what they were supposed to do with students refusing to be tested, whether tell them to stay home or let them to sit while others took the test.

Both schools and families said there was a wide range of responses, some more amicable than others.

In the end, the exact number of op-outs was difficult to determine, but the state is expected to provide its 2013-2014 testing data this week, which could provide some clues. Among the data is the number of students who were marked “not present” for either the testing or its makeup days.

Hespe downplayed the size of the opt-out movement, saying that New Jersey’s long history of testing has left most people comfortable with the place of assessment. “We’ve been doing this for many years, and because there is a certain level of comfort, we haven’t seen a big opt-out [movement],” he said.