Last month, public school students in the state took a new standardized test, called PARCC, which was developed to assess their abilities and hopefully improve public education. But parents and teachers saw red, telling government officials to stay out of their kids’ classrooms. Facebook was abuzz with varying viewpoints, while the teachers’ union hit the airwaves with paid commercials denouncing the test. Nonetheless, PARCC was administered, and as the dust settles, only time will tell if this new standard is, in fact, the new normal.

Marlton mom Sue Wilder first heard about PARCC not long after the start of the school year. Her fifth- and sixth-grade daughters came off the bus ranting about the new standardized tests debuting this spring – and both wanted out. PARCC, they explained, was to be taken on a computer, and that scared them. Once an answer to a question was selected, there would be no chance to go back. Even multi-step math questions would be solved online. Curious, Wilder started doing her own homework on the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness and College Careers (PARCC). She discovered that PARCC is indeed a new standardized test. And it bears little resemblance to the exams that she and other parents took during their own school days. Those differences have made the exam controversial – not just in South Jersey but also across the nation.

PARCC was created to measure how effectively schools are following the Common Core State Standards, a set of curriculum guidelines adopted by New Jersey five years ago. Common Core spells out, grade by grade, what students need to know in math and English Language Arts (ELA).

PARCC is the first in the state’s 40-year history of standardized testing that is taken online. It is considered far more rigorous than past generations of exams. For the first time, the results will be used to evaluate educators and affect tenure decisions. Also, the exams are longer – requiring some eight to 10 hours of testing time, depending on the grade. And while there is a built-in transition period – as scores are anticipated to be lower while students and teachers adjust to the new demands – passing these “next-generation” exams will likely become a graduation requirement for the class of 2019, according to the N.J. Department of Education (DOE).

Public schools across the nation are in the midst of major makeovers tied to the Common Core. The federal government invested $360 million into both PARCC and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, a competing testing collective. With bipartisan champions – including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Microsoft’s Bill Gates – the Common Core-aligned tests were touted by Education Secretary Arne Duncan as nothing less than “an absolute game-changer in public education.” The idea was the vast majority of states would contract with one of the two testing consortiums, making cross-state comparisons of student achievement possible for the first time in U.S. history and – once and for all – defining what skills are necessary to succeed in our increasingly high-tech, information-based global economy.

Moreover, supporters say it would address a widespread problem: the large number of young adults currently graduating from high school unprepared for college or careers. Some sources, including the National Governor’s Association, say approximately 40 percent of incoming first-year college students require some remediation, exacting a high price on society and muddying these students’ prospects for obtaining degrees and upward mobility. To sweeten the deal for states moving forward with Common Core and its aligned tests, those willing to adopt college- and career-ready standards would receive a piece of some $4 billion in federal funding.

As Wilder researched, she became alarmed. Although PARCC was new to New Jersey, the Internet was on fire with complaints from those already initiated in other states. They ranged from worry about the amount of time schools were diverting from non-Common Core subjects – such as science, the arts, library and even recess – to devote to teaching test-related skills to the vast resources involved in realigning curriculum and creating high-tech testing labs in every school. There were questions about how the data on individual students would be disseminated and also talk of the tension it was creating due to the length, difficulty and developmental appropriateness of the content. Taking the test online posed its own set of problems, from systems crashing to frustrations with typing.

Wilder read of the failure rate on Common Core-aligned exams in neighboring New York and controversy nationwide as other states grappled with similar growing pains. She saw missives against federal overreach and outrage that for-profit companies were swooping into the business of education.

She was especially disturbed to learn a substantial number of the states initially committed to administering PARCC had backed off for this spring, citing issues ranging from budgeting shortfalls to political pressures. Of 26 states originally connected to PARCC, only 10 and Washington, D.C., are still on board.

Stances on the Common Core and standardized tests have become fodder for the 2016 presidential campaign, particularly among Republicans. Even Gov. Chris Christie has entered the fray. A month before New Jersey was set to administer PARCC, he told a GOP audience in Iowa that he now has “grave concerns” about the standards and exams he previously endorsed. This came as the state DOE was moving full steam ahead with its $108 million plan to have Pearson, the world’s largest curriculum and testing company, administer the exams.

Closer to home, the Wilder family was growing more apprehensive about the coming exams. Wilder was particularly concerned about her oldest, Jessica, who has autism and works hard for her straight As. Jessica’s first experience with PARCC prep tests was particularly disastrous. After sweating through a 28-question ELA exam and only coming up with four correct answers, Jessica developed a migraine that prevented her from attempting the essay section. It took Wilder hours to calm the Cherokee High School freshman after school.

“She puts enough pressure on herself; this test would destroy her,” says Wilder, who started the Facebook group “Let Teachers Teach, Say No to Common Core” with another Marlton mom in December.

With the state now midway through the rollout of these “next-generation” exams – the first wave of testing was conducted in March, to be followed by more this month – much of New Jersey has some familiarity with PARCC. And while the vast majority of third- to 11th-graders are taking the tests, the Wilder children are among many who have refused to sit for the exam.

In Cherry Hill, less than 30 percent of 11th graders sat for the test; the others chose to “opt out.” Participation was higher at the lower grades with 82 percent of eighth graders and 91 percent of fifth graders taking the test, according to the district.

Many school districts statewide have established written policies to accommodate PARCC refusals, either by providing alternate settings for non-testing students or, at a minimum, allowing them to read quietly in the same room as testing students. Many districts that initially stated they would not permit opt outs changed policies as the refusals increased. Still, some districts have taken more punitive approaches. Burlington County Institute of Technology, Lenape Regional and Riverside are among districts that required students to verbally state their intention to refuse even after their parents sent in notice. Meanwhile, some schools are allowing students to skip final exams in English and math if they take the PARCC.

As more parents have grown uneasy about the new assessments, opt-out virtual networks have proliferated, connecting parents in South Jersey and beyond. At the same time, the

New Jersey Education Association, the largest teachers’ union, is actively fighting against PARCC with a TV-commercial campaign featuring teachers and parents talking about what they perceive to be the harmful impact of high-stakes standardized exams.

While those opting out are outspoken, their views are not universally shared. In truth, many parents have little opinion or knowledge about the transition to new exams, and some are perplexed that friends and neighbors are flat-out refusing a state-mandated exam that will ultimately be a requirement for graduation.

Samantha Murphy has no qualms about allowing her daughter Maddie to take the third-grade test at Loring Flemming Elementary School in Gloucester Township. The PARCC practice tests that she and Maddie took mirrored the homework she’s been bringing home all year.

“I grew up taking standardized tests. As long as I can remember, there was the Iowa test and – later in life – there were different tests,” says Murphy. “Every school across the country gives standardized tests, so why all of a sudden is everyone so outraged about it?”

Not only do Maddie and her friends seem unfazed about PARCC, the preparation doesn’t seem to be all-consuming.

“She’s not thinking she’s going to live or die by this test,” Murphy says. “She’s 8. She’s just thinking this is a test she’s going to take.”

Other voices have come forward to present a pro-PARCC stance in recent months.

Michael Gorman, superintendent of Pemberton Township schools, says while he understands the apprehension many are feeling, he’s confident that educators and students will adjust and thrive.

“Every series of exams has been more rigorous than past tests, and we have always responded to that rigor and eventually conquered it,” says Gorman, who served on the state’s 2011 College and Career Readiness Task Force that endorsed the move to Common Core.

He expects the results will give educators much stronger instructional feedback than previous exams provided. Yes, PARCC will be tough on students, but in a good way, sharpening critical-thinking skills and preparing them for real-world tasks. And while the technology will be a challenge for some in the beginning, particularly for kids without computer access at home, it doesn’t mean the state shouldn’t move forward.

“I look at this either as the stars aligning or the perfect storm,” says Gorman. “This is a great opportunity to really advance what we’re doing to help kids become more competitive in a global world.”

Moorestown resident Sandra Alberti, a former South Jersey educator who worked at the DOE when the standards were adopted, agrees. The mother of two now works for Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit organization created by the lead writers of the Common Core to develop effective lesson plans.

“Despite what a lot of people say, I don’t think PARCC is torture,” says Alberti, a former teacher and administrator in Voorhees and the past superintendent in Gibbsboro. “Kids take tests every day. How many times have we seen them overcome things they didn’t think they could do?”

Among her concerns about the opt-out movement is that non-compliance will skew data, both on a local level where educators depend on it to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of their teaching strategies and for the state as it sets the baseline for proficiency levels, she says.

“Imagine if only students who feel confident and comfortable participate,” says Alberti. “If students who are new to the language and have a range of special needs all participate, we will actually get more complete and accurate information on this new assessment.”

For Sandy Student, an Evesham Board of Education member, the idea of standardized tests tied to a more rigorous curriculum is a paradigm shift that needed to happen. For years, New Jersey has tried other strategies to improve education, including smaller class sizes and funneling large amounts of money to districts with impoverished students. Success has been limited.

“We know we can’t keep doing things the way they have always been done, because that hasn’t worked,” says Student, a partner at TechCXO, a national technology consulting firm.

The frustration from a board perspective, he says, is that schools have invested heavily in Common Core and PARCC as they were mandated to do, yet the state failed miserably to achieve buy-in from teachers, parents and students.

“It’s not an ideal situation,” says Student. “From a marketing perspective, the launch of PARCC has been flawed. When you launch a new product, it is always tested initially then refined. But if you had to do this again, I can guarantee it would not have been done the way it has.”

April 2015
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