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Opting out of PARCC assessments: an unsettled issue

Many parents are confused as to whether they can opt-out of the upcoming PARCC assessments, and if so, how. Parents are also asking what the consequences will be for children who do opt out, or who stay home on testing days. Their confusion is completely understandable. The answers are not clear.

PARCC stands for “Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.” It is a set of computer-based assessments in Language Arts and Mathematics that are aligned with the new Common Core Standards. The New Jersey State Board of Education identified PARCC as the state’s testing program, beginning in 2014-15, to replace New Jersey’s previous standardized tests: the NJASK in grades 3 through 8, and the HSPA in high school. A New Jersey Board of Education regulation requires local boards of education to administer the state’s testing program.

School policy regarding the testing requirement still seems to be evolving–in large part due to the voice of parents who object that the PARCC is a misleading measure of student achievement, and a misuse of teaching time. Some parents of children with special needs are especially concerned that the test will prove to be a poor measure of student potential, and a detrimental, anxiety-provoking experience.

Taking the PARCC is not a requirement for students to advance to the next grade in elementary school, and is not a high school graduation requirement until 2018. However, schools need to show a 95% rate of attendance for taking the test. Otherwise, schools may experience loss of funding or other consequences from the government.

Since school boards are required to administer the PARCC assessment, schools may advise parents that students must take the PARCC assessment. There is no legislative or regulatory permission for parents to opt out. At the same time, there is no pronouncement from the government or schools that explicitly prohibits opting out. Some schools are developing policies informing parents about how schools will handle situations in which parents choose not to allow their children to take the test (i.e., permitting quiet reading by non-test-takers.) Students, parents and parent groups continue to speak with school boards and government officials to clarify ramifications and procedures for opting out, and these policies vary on a local level.

For example, Bloomfield, Montville, Delran, Princeton and other school districts have announced that they will accommodate and not punish students who refuse the test. In contrast, South Orange–Maplewood School District officials have announced that the only activity to be provided during the testing periods will be the test itself, and that the school board has no plans to adopt a policy concerning testing administration.

Furthermore, government officials have responded to parental concerns by revising earlier statements to make clear that missing school to avoid the tests is not necessarily a matter of disciplinary concern. Parents should note, however, that schools will give make-up tests. Therefore, missing school on a test date is not likely to accomplish a parent’s goal of avoiding having their child take the test.

Much of the debate surrounding the PARCC pertains to all students–with or without special needs.

Some parents are concerned that:

  • The test is computer-based, and difficult for young children to take;
  • Test questions are confusing and not thoroughly tested;
  • Much class time will be spent taking the tests;
  • Much class time is being spent preparing students to take the test;
  • The students and teachers are expressing anxiety about administering and taking the test; and
  • Parents are concerned that the test will be a poor tool in assessing student strengths, especially for children with learning differences.

Others, including some school administrators and government officials, have offered the following responses:

  • The test was designed to insure compliance with new Core Curriculum standards. (Teachers’ performance assessments will be based, in part, on their students’ performance on the PARCC);
  • The test will yield more detailed information about students, allowing schools to better target an individual student’s areas of need;
  • While the test requires use of technology, students need to know this knowledge for when they graduate;
  • The State has adopted the assessment and schools need to administer it to comply with law and hold onto funding; and
  • Since it is expected that most students will take the exam, a student who experiences anxiety may feel worse if he sits out while his classmates take the exam.

Parents of children with special needs have expressed particular concerns about the test. The test makers of the PARCC state that testing accommodations are “built-in” to the test. However, confusion exists as to whether such uniform accommodations (such as 50% extended time for all students) can effectively address the special needs of all students.

Many parents of children with special needs may be unaware that additional accommodations for the PARCC are, in fact, available. Parents of children with Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs) can request accommodations for their child for the PARCC to be written into their child’s IEP. A written form of the test is available. Parents may begin a discussion with their IEP teams by reviewing with the team the accommodations that have helped their child in the past on statewide assessments such as the NJASK. Both parents and administrators have expressed confusion as to what test accommodations will look like, and how they will work, in fact.

Because of the computer-based nature of much of the PARCC exam, and the length of the test, some parents have special concerns about the effect of the test on children who already struggle with anxiety disorders. Parents of children with special needs who have a medical reason for opting out may wish to consider submitting a letter from their child’s doctor.

Parents should realize that the school administrators may not be able to provide complete answers to their questions. Parents can check their local print and on-line newspapers for information about very recent pronouncements from their local school boards about how opt out situations will be addressed.

In short, there is no clear answer as to whether parents may opt out, how to do so, and what the ramifications will be. Parents, students, teachers, administrators and governmental officials should continue to work together to resolve the shared confusion about how to effectively test teaching and learning, while maintaining and improving the quality of teaching itself with an overarching concern for respecting student differences.