North Jersey schools stress need for state testing

NorthJersey.com- School officials are holding one-on-one meetings with parents, giving warnings about graduation requirements and showing videos and presentations in an effort to try to get more students to sit for state exams next month.

The tests, known as PARCC, had a rough rollout last year as tens of thousands of students refused to participate amid an anti-testing backlash, while others purposely tanked the test in protest. This year, schools are asking families to hear them out before they make a decision whether to test.

“There is a lot of misinformation out there,” Scot Beckerman, superintendent of the Northern Highlands Regional High School District, said at a forum on the tests Tuesday that attracted around 70 people. “We want to make sure parents are getting the facts and are making educated decisions about PARCC.”

At public forums and at parent meetings, school leaders are telling families that they need strong participation so their scores will be more reliable, and so they can glean information from the results that they can use in classrooms. They’re letting them know that the testing will be less disruptive to schedules — it’s about 90 minutes shorter than last year and will be held in one time period instead of two.

In many districts, the outreach over testing isn’t voluntary. That’s because this year the state required schools with less than 95 percent participation among all students and among categories of students to adopt corrective action plans to bring up testing rates.

But some parents remain concerned that the test is too difficult and confusing and that it forces schools to teach to the test, taking away from other kinds of learning and from classroom creativity. Others say they don’t need a state test to know how well their children are performing and that local teachers and administrators are in the best position to judge students.

Some districts are warning families that refusals could make it harder, or at least more complicated, for students to graduate.

PARCC is one of the ways that students can fulfill their state graduation requirements, but some students who did not take or pass the test last year have scrambled to earn their diplomas in other ways. High schools seniors have taken a battery of tests they normally wouldn’t take, such as exams for the military and community colleges. Others have put together work portfolios that the state has to approve to allow them to graduate.

In Wayne, Schools Superintendent Mark Toback sent a letter to parents saying he understands they may want to refuse the tests and outlining ways they can do that by sending a letter or email to the principal. But he warned of “unexpected consequences.”

“We currently have a significant number of high school seniors who refused the PARCC, did not perform well enough on other standardized tests, and are not in position to graduate,” he wrote. “While we hope some of the spring standardized tests will help, it is a serious issue that high school parents and students need to consider.”

In Clifton, where more than 100 students still haven’t met graduation requirements, officials are urging families to take the test more seriously this year.

Janina Kusielewicz, director of curriculum, instruction and federally funded programs for Clifton schools, stressed that the state is taking steps to make the state exam the singular test requirement for graduation starting with the class of 2021.

“[PARCC] is one of the pathways at this time for a student to be able to graduate. And in a few years it is going to be the main graduation requirement from the Department of Education. So why would you take a chance?” she said.

Critics say schools aren’t doing enough to let parents know about other methods to prove graduation readiness, including an array of tests that are considered to be easier than PARCC.

Under the current state requirement, students must meet benchmarks in PARCC, college entrance tests, the military exam or a community college placement test to graduate, or they can submit a work portfolio for the state’s review.

Previously, the overwhelming majority of students passed a much easier state test that allowed them to graduate.

“To suggest that PARCC is the easiest way to meet that requirement is a disservice. It’s a really hard test and the bar is really high,” said Julia Sass Rubin, an organizer with education activist group Save Our Schools NJ, who said schools should do more to publicize alternative ways to graduate.

Last year, fewer than half of students passed PARCC, which was given in Grades 3 to 11 in math and English language arts. Local and state officials say they expect scores to improve as students and teachers get used to the test and learn from it, and as more students participate.

While some students who did take the test struggled to pass it, there is evidence that the dismal performance of schools was partly due to those students who didn’t take the test or didn’t take it seriously. A Record analysis of testing data showed that when more students skipped the test, the school’s overall performance declined.

Parent outreach

Last year, districts accepted letters and emails from parents declaring their intention to refuse the test right up to and even during testing time. But this year, some are setting deadlines for refusals while others are asking parents to come in for meetings if they intend to refuse.

Northern Highlands urges parents to sit with a guidance counselor so they can get information about testing before they make up their minds. At Ramapo Indian Hills Regional High School, administrators have asked parents to come to school and sign a statement of refusal.

Rubin said the move could discourage parents who work during the day and who may feel intimidated when asked to sign a formal document of refusal in person.

Test critics argue that schools should not pressure or compel students to take the test and that they have the right to refuse an exam they believe will harm, not help, the schools by draining time and resources from the classroom. Their opposition is part of a nationwide push against what critics say is an overuse and overreliance on standardized tests. Many say they will refuse the tests again this year.

But some parents are changing their minds.

Christina Lenihan of Upper Saddle River said her daughter took the first part of the test last year, but skipped the second part because she had too much schoolwork in her classes and was studying for an Advanced Placement physics test. Her score was incomplete and not usable.

This year, the high school sophomore will take PARCC. Lenihan changed her mind, she said, after hearing that the school would not hold classes during state exams so her daughter would not miss any schoolwork.

But she also wants her district to do better.

“I don’t like the test, but she is going to sit and give them the participation they need,” she said, adding that she hoped better participation would give the school the data that officials need to evaluate their own performance.

James Foody, president of the Board of Education in West Milford, said his daughter, who skipped tests last year, will participate.

“It’s going to show us where we’re lacking, so just bite your tongue and take the test this year,” he said.

West Milford had low participation and the scores were disappointing last year, he said. “Let’s take the test and show everybody how good we are,” he said.

Questionable scores

Officials say they need strong student participation this spring so they can get a full and accurate assessment of how kids, teachers and schools are doing. Last year, there were questions about the reliability of score reports in some districts where many refused and where students reportedly rushed through the test or purposely gave wrong answers.

That lack of interest resulted in some schools with a history of above-average performance — including Cresskill, Glen Rock, Midland Park and Wayne — showing passing rates on some tests of less than 20 percent, and even as low as the single digits.

In Ridgewood and the Pascack Valley Regional High School District, for instance, superintendents said they did not think the tests were an accurate reflection of student performance. They said that many high-achieving students had refused, since they were also studying for the SAT and Advanced Placement tests.

In some places, school officials reported that students purposely rushed through the test or put down wrong answers because of anti-test sentiment in their schools. According to results released by the state, there were grades where no one passed a test and districts that performed much worse than they usually do compared with similar schools.

While some individual districts had problems, mainly at the high school level, state officials said that overall last year’s testing was a success. In total, more than 800,000 students participated.

New Jersey had the second-best scores out of around 12 states and Washington, D.C., experts said. Its students performed better across most grades and subjects. Massachusetts had a higher passing rate in high schools, but a smaller, voluntary group of students took exams in those grades.

This year, schools will schedule tests between April 4 and May 20. Some officials believe more students will take the tests this year, and that overall scores will improve as people get used to the test.

“We’re going to see that sophomore-year push,” state Education Commissioner David Hespe said at an education conference this month. “We’ll see a lot more folks participating, because it’s not new anymore. People understand that the test is not evil and it’s actually providing some value.”

But activists hope that New Jersey, like other states that once gave the PARCC, will do away with the test. “There is nothing to support exit testing,” Rubin said, “so the odds are good that the next governor will abolish it entirely or move away from a test-based requirement.”

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