It’s Crunch Time for Deciding on PARCC Test Opt-Outs and Implementation Delays

As grassroots opposition to new testing grows, NJ lawmakers worry about possible loss of federal funds

Amid the rhetoric and emotion over the new PARCC tests, the logistical questions came quickly yesterday as the Assembly starting weighing new bills to slow down the full implementation of the tests and devise a statewide policy for families who refuse to have their children take the exams.

Would such delays – if not defiance — put the state in violation of state and federal laws? And would it cost the state and districts an estimated $330 million in federal funding, largely earmarked for low-income students?

The answers may not be easy to come by, as the federal government’s positions on states and families pulling back from the new testing have become something of a moving target of late.

Over the last two years, as implementation has gotten ever closer and controversy has grown, the Obama administration has been tough on some states that haven’t lived up to their commitments in terms of the new testing.

The prime example: It rescinded a federal waiver granted to Washington State, leading to the reallocation of more than $50 million in federal money. Three other states have received warnings.

But the administration has also shown some flexibility in dealing with other states facing unique and sometimes-technical challenges in fulfilling the commitments they made under the waiver process, in some cases granting extensions or exceptions.

Federal officials have said how the government responds to balky states depends on the “severity of non-compliance” — and there are a multitude of steps the government says it would take before touching the funding.

At issue in New Jersey are two bills that have drawn wide attention and were before the state Assembly’s education committee yesterday morning.

One would set a statewide policy for districts to follow in allowing families to refuse to participate in the new testing, including possible alternative programs for those children. The opt-out movement has been growing in the state, forcing districts to decide on their own how to handle those students.

The second bill could have even greater implications, as it would delay for three years the use of the new testing in evaluating schools, teachers and students.
The chief sponsor of both bills and the chairman of the committee, state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex), said the level of concern about the new testing has been unprecedented in his tenure in the Assembly.

Diegnan stressed that he is not anti-testing, but wants to be more deliberate in how the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) results will be used.

“We would administer the test for three years,” he said, ”but during that period of time it would really be a pilot program to see what’s right about it, what’s wrong about it, and to deal with the issues so then it can be a reliable gauge.

“So really, it’s just, in my mind, imperative we take a time out,” he said. “Let’s put everybody back on the same page.”

There is nowhere close to agreement now. During the hearing, more than 40 people speak both in favor and against the testing. All of the state’s main education groups were on represented, as were parents and educators on both sides of the issues.

In the end, the bill delaying the use of the tests passed the committee by a unanimous vote, with three abstentions, and now heads next to the full Assembly.

But the bills have had less traction in the state Senate, where the chair of its education committee, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), has said she asked state officials to testify about the bills’ implications and regarding the state of the testing program as a whole.

“We have requested the department to come in and give us information to the status of the testing and debunk some of the information that is out there,” she said yesterday.

Where Gov. Chris Christie stands is proving to be a guessing game, as well, as he initially stood behind the testing and its use, but lately has backed off on his support of the Common Core State Standards that are the foundation of the tests.

A fundamental question is whether the state can, under current laws and regulations, change direction so close to implementation — at least without federal approval.

It was a commitment struck in 2012, as New Jersey – with both Gov. Chris Christie and the Legislature’s approval — sought a waiver from the previous federal rules under the No Child Left Behind Act.

As part of the waiver, the state committed to using PARCC testing as part of the systems for evaluating both teachers and schools. The use of such baselines started last year.

But if the bill passed, it would push back those baselines until 2017 and 2018, respectively, and effectively delay any use of the tests for evaluations until 2020. And that’s if the federal government went along with the delays.

Diegnan has said these details that can be resolved. “That’s something we could work out,” he said.

But so far the federal government hasn’t been too forgiving without being presented with a compelling reason from the states. In Washington State, it was the reluctance to tie testing to teacher evaluations – a prime issue in New Jersey – that cost it the federal-funding waiver after a host of warnings.

A second issue has been related to the opt-out bill, and federal mandates that at least 95 percent of students participate in the statewide assessments. The mandates were put in place under No Child Left Behind to prevent schools from withholding students who would potentially pull down the scores.

But the impetus for the opt-out movement is coming from the families themselves, and the question arose yesterday about whether the state and school districts could be penalized if a large number of students sit out the tests.

Some called that a red herring being raised by the state, with the federal government sure not to penalize districts for what is a parent-led movement.

Diegnan yesterday said he has asked the office of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez for clarification.

“He is confident, as is his office, that it is not an issue,” Diegnan said. “However, the bill is up today for discussion only, so hopefully we can get that on the record. Hopefully, at the next hearing, we will be able to vote on it.”

But federal officials have been less ambiguous in other states. In early 2014, assistant U.S Education Secretary Deborah Delisle wrote Alaskan state officials that states were required to have 95 percent of students take the tests, and she specifically answered a question about whether large-scale opt-outs would imperil the state’s standing.

“This requirement does not permit certain students or a specific percentage of students to be excluded from the tests,” read the letter.

“If (the state) does not assure that all students are assessed, the (U.S Department of Education) has a range of enforcement actions it can take,” Delisle’s letter to Alaskan officials said.