Op-Ed: Let’s Stop Fighting Over PARCC Testing, Focus on Continued Student Gains

The real struggle is to make sure that all NJ students are prepared to be successful on the new test

Vivian Cox Fraser and Reginald Lewis
In marking the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act, we find ourselves grappling with what has emerged as the civil rights challenge of our time — the continued struggle to close our nation’s achievement gap. Indeed, New Jersey has a history of paving the way.

We can celebrate academic gains tied to the demonstrated commitment and funding that has significantly improved the quality of early childhood education and intensive early literacy in many of the state’s poorest school districts. Yet the recent calls for a moratorium and “opting children out” of the new state test threatens to undermine progress made in narrowing the achievement gap and the pursuit of a broader agenda for educational equity and rigor for all students, particularly disadvantaged students of color.

Beginning this week, many New Jersey students will take a new computerized test known as PARCC — Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. The PARCC test replaces the NJASK exam given to elementary students, as well as the HSPA used to measure high-school student performance. Similar to both NJASK and HSPA, PARCC will assess student proficiency in language arts literacy and math. Unlike the former state tests, PARCC is aligned to standards New Jersey adopted in 2010 to increase college and career readiness among all students. These standards are also referred to as the Common Core.

Policymakers and education leaders have agreed for the past five years that simply maintaining the old NJASK and HSPA will not provide the information and results required to gauge student strengths and weaknesses in mastering the Common Core. PARCC will help us determine if our students are improving critical thinking, problem solving, and higher-order thinking — all essential skills for succeeding in college, a future career, and life.

So what has really changed? The well-funded and organized pushback to PARCC over the past several weeks has gained momentum by creating enormous anxiety and confusion among parents and students. In the remaining precious days and hours leading to the administering of PARCC, we implore all who embrace educational rigor and equity to support concrete steps to provide families with accurate information and prepare all students to meet the higher academic standards outlined in the Common Core.

All districts have been required to gear up for this change anticipated over the past several years. In lieu of fighting the use of the PARCC test, efforts must now be wisely focused on ensuring that every district, particularly those serving high percentages of historically underserved children, provide students with the tools and support to be successful on the new test.

According to Education Commissioner David Hespe, “A full 98 percent of New Jersey schools report they are technologically prepared to give the PARCC exam.” In cases of schools that reported a lack of readiness, the commissioner has issued guidance to accommodate students who require assistive technologies or a paper-based version of the test. We urge our school leaders to be vigilant in the pursuit of these accommodations where needed.

Finally, we respectfully urge a reconsideration of proposed state legislation that could lead to several unintended consequences, including placing U.S. Department of Education Title I dollars in jeopardy (federal supplementary dollars used to support economically disadvantaged students). As currently written, the legislation would impose a moratorium on the use of PARCC for “certain purposes” such as a student’s placement in “another program or intervention.” This conflicts with New Jersey’s responsibility to identify student groups and schools in need of intervention. If we cannot do that with PARCC data, how then would districts identify and tailor assistance to address the needs of disadvantaged students of color?

The Office of Legislative Services issued a report last week that concludes that the state and/or its districts may need to implement and pay for yet another layer of testing on top of PARCC if the proposed legislation is enacted. And a recent letter to the NJDOE from the U.S. Office of Elementary and Secondary Education warns that New Jersey’s inability to comply with current federal requirements for annual statewide testing could possibly trigger several punitive enforcement actions, including the withholding of programmatic Title I funds used to support some of the state’s neediest children.

Let’s ensure that we avoid inadvertently harming students. This fight should not be focused on limiting the use of the PARCC test. Our energies are best placed in the continued struggle to provide all students the opportunity to obtain an excellent education and to implement an assessment that provides timely and meaningful feedback to ensure that schools and districts can be held accountable to make that happen.