Senate Democrats Craft Nonbinding Resolution for PARCC Testing Opt-Outs

Low-key request simply asks that students and families who choose not to take PARCC exams not be punished for decision

The testing opt-out movement in New Jersey was on full boil this past spring, with thousands of families — if not tens of thousands — sitting out the state’s new PARCC exams, while politicians and policymakers grappled with the issue.

Last week, the Democratic-led Legislature took a step back from more aggressive measures and quietly passed a nonbinding resolution telling the Christie administration to assist these families.

In a voice vote, the state Senate passed a resolution that urges the administration to set guidelines by this fall for districts to address families who want their kids to sit out the tests.

The resolution does not dictate guidelines; it only says that the Department of Education’s rules should not punish children and families who choose not to participate in what has become a polarizing array of tests.

It did specifically ask that schools be prohibited from creating what have been labeled “sit and stare” policies, in which students are not required to sit for the tests but given nothing to do.

“The guidelines should prohibit a school district from taking punitive action against a student including, but not limited to, the adoption of a sit and stare policy in response to the student’s refusal to participate in the Statewide assessment,” read the resolution.

It also noted that “The guidelines should also address how and when the district’s policy will be communicated to parents, students, and school-district staff.”

The chief sponsor, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the Senate education chair, said it was an important message to send the department.

“The consistent thing we heard across the state was the need for a standardized policy for test-takers,” she said yesterday.

But beyond its symbolic message, the resolution carries no legal requirement and falls well short of a |bill that carried unanimously in the Assembly that would have required the state create an exemption policy for families who do not want their kids to participate in the testing.

That bill would have required districts set up procedures for families not taking part, giving both a formal and well-publicized outlet for opting out. It had been a favorite of critics of the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), some of who pressed to suspend the use of testing altogether.

The bill never was posted in the Senate, and Ruiz said yesterday her resolution was likely the furthest the Senate would go at this point.

“We wanted to give discretion to the department without being onerous,” she said yesterday. “The key here is we keep moving forward. This puts steps in place, without a binding statute where we can’t have some flexibility.”

The prime sponsor of the Assembly bill, state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex), said yesterday that he accepted Ruiz’s move, but still wished for something stronger.

“I obviously respect her approach also, but I felt that [his bill] would have been the most effective way,” said Diegnan, who chairs the Assembly’s education committee.

“We need to stop bickering and get everyone on the same page,” he said of the debate that has dominated the conversation about PARCC.“I think a law could have done that.”

Diegnan said a stronger measure even had a chance of passage in the Senate, given it was near unanimous in the Assembly and Gov. Chris Christie a wild card with his recent moves to back away from the Common Core State Standards that serve as the foundation for PARCC testing.

“Honestly, in the present environment, the governor might have signed it,” he said.

Nonetheless, Ruiz said she thought it a better path to work with the administration and pointed to the recent compromises on the use of the PARCC testing in teacher evaluations, and also the scaling back of the amount of time the tests take for next year.

“We went through a critical first step with the testing last year, and there were difficulties,” she said. “But I do think next year will be a smoother process.”

Critics of the testing remained adamant that the Legislature should have pursued a bill, instead of a resolution.

“The [department] has a poor track record when it comes to being sensitive to the needs of students and the concerns of parents,” said Susan Cauldwell, executive director of SOS NJ Community Organizing, an advocacy group.

“Our expectation is that the DOE will continue its campaign of threats and intimidation against school districts and boards of education.”