District administrators grapple with local opposition to PARCC exam

One hundred thirty-eight West Windsor-Plainsboro students, less than two percent of eligible test-takers in grades 3 to 11, have opted out of the first phase of a new national standardized test, amid nationwide controversy about the exam’s educational merit.  As of March 8, 16 North students and 39 South students had opted out.

The PARCC—a two-part assessment designed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a consortium of 11 states, including New York and New Jersey—has generated fierce opposition across the state from parents and teachers who fear the exam will demoralize students and consume hours of instructional time.  At Princeton High School, nearly 800 students, or 69 percent of eligible test takers, have refused to take the PARCC, joining a nationwide opt-out movement that has attracted significant media coverage.

“Parents recognize that the US in general and New Jersey in particular have gone way overboard in terms of devoting educational time to testing, not teaching,” said Robert Schaeffer, a spokesman for the Massachusetts-based National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest, which advocates against high-stakes standardized tests.  “Refusing to participate in the PARCC test is a very clear way to make that concern known and to protect children.”

New Jersey law requires the district to schedule PARCC testing dates for every student in grades 3 to 11.  But parents can opt their children out by sending an email to the building principal.  Students who opt out are allowed to read quietly in the back of the testing room while their peers take the exam.

Alok Sharma, the father of two WW-P students, said he objects to WW-P’s opt-out policy, because it confines students who refuse the test to the exam room.  “The kids should be allowed to move to a separate classroom,” he said.  “They should have some resources to engage the kids in activities.”

“It could make you feel really isolated,” said North language arts teacher Donna Clovis.  “I wouldn’t want to be in that situation.  I would love to see extra classroom space.”

But WW-P Assistant Superintendent Martin Smith said such accommodations are logistically impossible, given the number of teachers required to proctor the test.

In January and February, Smith held three public meetings at which he addressed parents’ concerns about the PARCC.  Virginia Manzari, a mother of two WW-P students who has spearheaded the local opt-out movement, said she was disappointed with the presentations.  “There is a little bit of subtle pressure that the district is placing on the parents,” she said.  “They’re giving the impression that parents can’t refuse.”

“It’s unfortunate that the state has put us in this situation, where the parents and the administrators are sort of foes,” she added.

The district has not released a written statement about its PARCC refusal protocol, leading to confusion among parents and students over whether such an option exists.  “We didn’t feel like we wanted to do anything to necessarily encourage people,” Smith said.

By contrast, the Princeton school district released a statement on January 22 explaining how to refuse the PARCC.  At PHS, students who opt out are permitted to leave the testing room to study or complete homework assignments.

Last month, the Princeton Board of Education endorsed a bill passed by the New Jersey State Assembly that proposes a three-year moratorium on the use of PARCC scores in teacher evaluations and decisions about student placement.  The WW-P school board has taken no public position on the bill.  School board president Anthony Fleres said he does not expect the board to discuss the pending legislation in the future.

Manzari said the actions of Princeton’s school board, as well as the activism of Julia Sass Rubin, a Princeton parent who runs the anti-testing organization Save Our Schools NJ, elevated that district’s opt-out numbers.  “In contrast, our district has presented PARCC in a positive light, without mentioning any of its inherent problems,” she said.

Critics of the PARCC, a computerized exam aligned to the Common Core State Standards, say it is poorly written and unnecessarily time-consuming. “The test is ridiculous,” said North junior Morgan Hendry, who refused the exam.  “It was a lot harder than it should have been.”

But according to Smith, the PARCC “has the potential to be a net positive,” because it will provide teachers with detailed analysis of whether students are mastering Common Core standards, which outline what students should learn in 13 years of schooling.  The Common Core is designed to ensure educational rigor and consistency across the states, and nearly every state, including New Jersey, has adopted it and taken steps to align curriculum and testing to the standards.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act—which requires states to administer annual standardized tests but which was enacted before the development of the Common Core or the PARCC—school districts in which fewer than 95 percent of students take the state test are subject to penalties.  But it remains unclear how the New Jersey Department of Education will respond to the unprecedented scale of this year’s opt-out movement.

Manzari, who has spent months researching the Common Core and mobilizing anti-PARCC resistance on Facebook, said parents have a responsibility to fight back against standardized testing.  “It’s up to us to be the best advocates that we can for our children,” she said.

Sharma said he hopes the grassroots campaign against standardized tests will eventually convince state officials to abandon the PARCC.  “This is America,” he said.  “We try all the wrong things, but in the end, we do the right thing.”

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