State Board of Education Members Put to the Test by Anti-Testing Turnout

John Mooney | January 8, 2015 | Education
Foes of switching to controversial PARCC exams enliven normally sedate monthly meeting in Trenton

They’re usually pretty sleepy affairs, but a small crowd descended on the State Board of Education’s monthly meeting yesterday. They came from a variety of places, but they had a common cause: protesting the state’s new regimen of student testing.

The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, promoted the meeting as a chance for its members to give public testimony about the testing –and even bought lunch for those who showed up.

Grassroots groups came out in force, too, from places like Montclair and South Brunswick.

It proved to be an interesting display of a small but growing protest movement that is starting to make its mark.

The turnout of close to 100 people was notable for a monthly state board meeting, albeit not unprecedented. But toting signs and buttons that protested the new testing, which has become a lightning rod nationwide, the crowd was large enough to grab the attention of state officials who stuck around to at least hear the concerns.

“We are all scared to death about PARCC,” said one teacher. “Children are not experiments.”

PARCC stands for the coalition of states participating in the new testing, the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

One who indulged the conversation more than most was state board President Mark Biedron, who hosted one of four different venues for testimony in the state department’s Trenton complex. Usually, public testimony is greeted by silence from board members, but Biedron asked questions and entertained follow-up questions.

“This is what the process is about, we want to hear from you,” he said.

Much of the discussion in his room was with parents who said they plan to withhold their children from the testing. A few of those testifying said the state needs to send a clearer message about the rights of students who refuse to take the tests.

The Christie administration has sent an ambiguous message, saying that students are expected to participate in the testing, but that the consequences for those who don’t participate will be left to local school districts to decide.

Biedron said repeatedly that he could not speak for the department, but hoped the message on student rights would be clearer going forward.

“Nobody can force your child to put their hands on the keyboard,” Biedron said several times.

Still, he acknowledged that the State Board’s role is limited in addressing the issue, saying the public testimony would be relayed to the department. He said more significant change would probably need legislative approval at this point.

“If you are going to remove PARCC, you should go to the Legislature,” he said.

And he said changes for at least the next year were unlikely, either way. “The train is out of the station,” he said.

The PARCC protest movement has put the administration in a tough spot, as it presses students to participate in the testing while dealing with those who plan to have their children sit out the testing, either out of protest or for their own reasons as parents.

State Education Commissioner David Hespe took some criticism in the fall when the department issued guidance saying that students were expected to take the tests or face possible disciplinary action from their districts.

Yesterday, he focused more on the need for districts to communicate the value of the testing and less on the consequences on those who don’t take the tests.

“We’re trying to get across that the PARCC exams will be providing much more robust information,” he said.

As for those who refused to take the tests, Hespe said: “Every district should apply its own policies.

“If a student comes in and is disruptive, you should have a disciplinary policy for that,” he said. “If they re not disruptive, you should have a policy of what you do with that child. We should not automatically assume that coming to school and not wanting to take the test is a disciplinary problem.”