Unusual Citizens’ Petition Asks State to Set Rules for Testing Opt-Outs

John Mooney | April 7, 2015 | Education
Effort by grassroots PARCC opponents comes in reaction to inaction by state legislators

Their efforts stalled in the State House, a group of families is trying an unusual tactic to try to get the state to adopt a policy to accommodate the growing number of students refusing to take the state’s controversial new standardized tests.

A citizens’ petition posted yesterday in the State Register calls on the state Board of Education to set a statewide policy for those choosing to opt out of the new PARCC testing — or any standardized testing.

The petition also calls for giving families the option of having their children sit out any instruction aimed at preparing for the state tests. It also demands an annual revisiting of the state’s testing policies, in general.

The citizens’ petition is not a typical path to policy change, invoked only a couple of times a year with the state Department of Education and rarely for such broad policy matters.

But one of the leading petitioners said she and others feel they need to try every avenue to bring attention to the testing issue that continues to roil the state and its public schools, especially as the state Legislature appears stalled in dealing with the issue.

[related]A bill that would set a statewide opt-out policy passed unanimously in the Assembly last month, but it has yet to be posted in the Senate, where Democratic leaders have clearly been more lukewarm toward the proposal.

“We have been trying the more traditional route with legislators and public meetings,” said Tova Felder, a Clifton mother who was among the five initial petitioners.

“But while we have made some progress, if this is not brought to a vote (in the Legislature), we’d be at a dead end and back to square one,” she said last night.

“This is a different route where there may be some dialogue, where the commissioner needs to answer some pointed questions from our side,” Felder said. “That alone would be great. There are just so many half-truths out there.”

The petition process allows anyone to ask the state Board of Education to amend policy and regulations. The request typically goes to the state Department of Education for review, and then to the state board itself for consideration.

The petition is no guarantee of approval, by any means, as recent history shows the board rejecting the requests just as often as not. But the process does require the board and the education department to at least address the concerns in writing, which is a significant step in itself, petitioners said.

Separate from the state process, an online petition in support of the request has drawn nearly 400 names.

The state petition comes during a lull in the debate over the PARCC testing and the opt-out movement. The first round of testing in March and April saw tens of thousands of families deciding to have their children sit out the tests amid considerable public debate over the merits of the new exams. When the next round begins in May, more families may join the opt-out movement.

The exact number – or even a rough estimate – of families opting out has been elusive.

The New Jersey Education Association, the statewide teachers union that has supported the movement, has estimated that more than 40,000 families had children sit out the exams.

State Education Commissioner David Hespe last week told the state Board of Education that well over 95 percent of elementary and middle-school students had taken the exams. But he didn’t give an estimate for students in the high schools, where the opt-out numbers have been highest.

State officials had said they would release a preliminary count after the first round of testing, but a spokesman said yesterday that the release of those numbers was not imminent.

“It’s important to the Department that any information we provide is accurate, and at this point in time we don’t have confirmed figures available,” said Michael Yaple, the department’s communications director.