With no sign of a compromise over the Christie administration’s plan to use the controversial online PARCC tests as the main high school graduation exam, the state teachers union and school activists say they are digging in and preparing for a fight that could last for years.
The DOE is gradually phasing in the requirement that high-school students pass two Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers tests, in Algebra I and 10th grade language arts. This year PARCC is one of several exams they may choose from, but it will become the only test option when current seventh graders reach the end of high school in 2021. Those who fail will still be able to graduate by submitting a portfolio of work demonstrating their academic skills.
The New Jersey Education Association, the Save Our Schools NJ advocacy group, and other critics list a number of objections to the requirement and PARCC generally, calling it poorly designed and charging it consumes time and money better spent on teaching. They also cite the number of students who opted out or failed the 11th grade test last year, putting their graduations at risk. Thousands of students are expected to file portfolio appeals this year.
Criticism of PARCC was the dominant theme of comments during a public testimony session held by the State Board of Education at the DOE offices in Trenton yesterday. At a press conference outside the building, NJEA vice president Marie Blistan said the union will keep trying to scuttle the requirement until it succeeds.
“We will stand up, and we will fight, and we will successfully either get this done here or do it through legislation, because there are both Republicans and Democrats that are suffering under the consequences of this test and the actions of the Department of Education,” she said.
On Monday, state Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex) introduced a bill, S2147, that would bar the use of any standardized test as a graduation requirement through 2020. New Jersey has mandated graduation exams for more than two decades, unlike many other states. A similar bill won Assembly approval last year but failed to move in the Senate.
The bill’s odds in the Senate are long. But even if it passed, Gov. Chris Christie would almost surely veto such a measure, though Blistan noted that last year he signed two bills that slightly limited the impact of testing. One of the bills banned the state from withholding money from schools with high PARCC opt-out rates, and the other prohibited giving commercial standardized tests to kindergarten through second grade students.
Testing critics have also tried to block the use of PARCC as a graduation requirement through the courts, with the fate of their challenge still pending. A group of students and parents sued the DOE over the current requirements, winning an administrative law judge’s sympathetic ear but no ruling as yet. The two sides continue to negotiate a possible settlement.
The DOE began the process of codifying the PARCC adoption last month, and the state Board of Education is expected to vote on the graduation requirement later this year. But Stan Karp of the Education Law Center, which is representing the students in the lawsuit, argued the PARCC plan will still violate laws related to graduation and invite more legal challenges.
Karp said the PARCC graduation exams are given in 10th grade, but the law calls for an 11th grade test; the currently allowed alternatives to PARCC, like the SAT and Accuplacer exams, are unaffordable for some students and are not designed to measure mastery of state standards; there is no plan for a retesting opportunities in 12th grade, as required by law; and the testing options for non-English-speakers are inadequate.
Susan Cauldwell, executive director of SOSNJ Community Organizing, also endorsed the legislative approach during the press conference, but held out the possibility of a grassroots campaign against PARCC that extends into 2017 and beyond.
“We won’t be discouraged in this fight,” she said. “Parents have attended countless public hearings, countless legislative hearings, they’ve written editorials, they’ve blogged, they’ve posted on Facebook. We’re not going away, so if it’s not this governor and this DOE, there’s an election coming, and it will be the next governor and the next DOE. We have the numbers, and change will be coming soon.”
That campaign will include recruiting more local school boards to pass resolutions asking the DOE to provide multiple pathways to graduation, including alternatives to standardized tests. Highland Park school board member Darcie Cimarusti, whose board was the first to pass such a measure, said she will urge other boards to follow suit at a May 14 delegate assembly of the New Jersey School Boards Association. Ten districts have already done so, she said.
“Our boards of education are accountable to the students and the parents and the taxpayers in their communities,” she said, while standing outside the DOE offices. “The problem we have going on here is the people inside that building are accountable to one person, and that’s Chris Christie.”
DOE officials defend the testing plan, saying that state law requires a graduation exam and the more rigorous PARCC tests are better than the old High School Proficiency Assessment. Supporters say the PARCC assessments are also preferable because they are aligned to the Common Core standards on which New Jersey school curriculums are based, and were created to measure students’ ability to apply their knowledge of concepts rather than memorizing facts.
A coalition called We Raise NJ, which includes the New Jersey PTA, NJ Business and Industry Association, NJ Charter Schools Association, NJSBA, and several other groups, sent out a press release yesterday defending PARCC.
“We believe in high-quality standards, as well as assessments that align to those standards. And we believe that every high school senior in the state of New Jersey should take a high-quality assessment to demonstrate college and career readiness,” said Rose Acerra, president-elect of the New Jersey PTA. “That is the best way to determine if they are prepared for the next step that awaits them, be it a classroom or a boardroom.”