Diegnan Enters PARCC Exam Fray with Bill Formalizing Opt-Out Procedures

Grassroots opposition to online testing continues to grow, while administration soldiers on with preparations for next month’s rollout

State Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex)
As the debate rages in public over New Jersey’s new student testing, state legislators are entering the fray with several new bills that could limit the exams and how they are used.

State Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly’s education committee, yesterday introduced a bill to provide a process for students to sit out the upcoming PARCC exams, including a timeline for families to give a 14-day notice to their districts and a requirement that schools provide someplace supervised for opt-outs during testing.

In addition, Diegnan said he planned a second bill that would delay the use of the new tests as a measurement of school, staff, or students for as much as three years. The details are still being worked out, but he said that while the tests would still be administered, they would not yet have any consequences associated with them.

“I’m just wondering if we want to take a time-out, and reflect on where we are and where we should be,” Diegnan said yesterday. “The distrust that is out there I find to be really distressing.”

Meanwhile, another bill sponsored by state Assemblyman David Rible (R-Monmouth) passed unanimously in the Assembly that would put new safeguards on the use and disclosure of student data.

The long-term prospects of the bills are far from certain, and the Christie administration hasn’t much hedged so far in proceeding as planned with Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), starting next month, while districts continue to prepare for the exams.

But leaders of the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union that has started a public campaign against the testing, continue to press for what they call a “testing bill of rights” out of the Legislature.

Yesterday, its chief lobbyist said she saw it would come in a package of bills, including Diegnan’s and Rible’s.

“It’s not going to be just one bill,” said Ginger Gold Schnitzer, the NJEA’s government relations director. “We’re now sorting out what is out there and seeing what needs to be amended … Bills are out there, and I think you will see more.”

She said the NJEA has also met with the Democratic leadership in both chambers, including a sit-down yesterday with Senate President Steve Sweeney’s staff and with state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the Senate education chair.

The Diegnan opt-out bill may touch the most sensitive nerve: a growing number of families say they will hold back their children from the upcoming tests in protest.
The bill would set a procedure for such refusals, addressing some concerns that each district is setting its own policies.

But Rible’s bill also touches the hot-button issue of student privacy concerning the data being collected by the state through testing and other means. The Christie administration has pledged safeguards are in place, but Rible’s bill specifically requires that parents are given a say in how the data for their children is distributed, including to the federal government.

Meanwhile, some of the state’s other large education organizations, including those representing school boards and school administrators, continue to back the new exams as a valuable steps in improving assessments in schools.

The state Department of Education this week released a new FAQ for parents about the PARCC exams.

State Education Commissioner David Hespe said he department continues to try to correct what he called “misinformation” about PARCC and the Common Core State Standards that are the basis of the new tests.

But the opposition is clearly mobilizing and gaining momentum, in part with the help of the NJEA, but also with grassroots support.

Last night, more than 200 people turned up at the second hearing on the state’s assessment system before a commission created by Gov. Chris Christie last summer when the debate was only starting to surface.

With state Hespe among four commission members listening, the crowd at the Jackson Liberty High School in Jackson was notably bigger — and more defiant — than the night before, at the first hearing held in a Jersey City school.

“The power has shifted,” said Melissa Katz a 19-year-old teacher-candidate at The College of New Jersey who has been a frequent voice before state officials and drew especially loud applause last night. “You may be the ones sitting at the table up front, but it is we who have the power.”

Another speaker presented a petition of more than 9,000 names opposed to the Christie administration’s testing path. Others came from the ranks of parents, teachers, and even a few students who will be taking the test and questioned the value of them. One said he hardly thought his application to Princeton would take into account his PARCC score.

“I have seen firsthand how children my age react to high-stakes tests, and it is very unhealthy,” said Jacob Hartmann, a freshman at Toms River High School South. “These tests are only increasing stress in students, teachers, and parents.”

During a break, Hespe was quick to praise those who came out and offer their suggestions.

“This is very valuable,” he said. “We need to understand the anxiety and concerns that are driving so much of the conversation.”

But he continued to stress that the PARCC test would be delivered this spring, adding that the state would then assess what happens next.

A third hearing, cancelled earlier this week due to the weather, is planned for Camden County at a date not yet determined.