Education in the Media
New Front Opens in War on PARCC: The Spin GameApril 3, 2015
The television advertisement about New Jersey's new standardized tests begins with a shot of a frowning woman and ends with a voiceover: "We're setting our kids up to fail."
In a different video, posted online, a young boy enthusiastically talks about the same tests, saying they are interactive, engaging and "will give parents like you more detailed feedback on my learning."
As New Jersey introduces new state assessments this spring, the state's education community has crafted dueling narratives about the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exams for students in grades 3-11.
On one side, the state's largest teachers union has branded the PARCC exams untested, unproven and a distraction from daily classroom instruction. On the other, the state's PTA and organizations representing New Jersey principals and superintendents are declaring the tests could help parents and teachers understand how well students are learning more than ever before.
Meanwhile, a grassroots parent movement opposed to PARCC is demanding its voice be heard, and the state's Department of Education says it's trying to communicate its own message, though officials acknowledge they may be drowned out by the noise.
With most students in a break between the first and second testing windows, here's a look at who's shaping the debate about PARCC.
Save Our Schools NJ, a parent group that has taken a stand on various education issues since 2010, launched its campaign against PARCC testing last year, calling the computerized math and English exams "diagnostically & instructionally useless."
It published a list of 12 reasons its opposed to the test, including PARCC's financial burden, and its members have testified against PARCC testing at state Board of Education meetings and other public hearings.
Members also created a step-by-step guide for how to refuse the tests, and the group's social media pages have become a message board for parents to share their PARCC concerns and experiences.
"Parents realize much is at stake and are organizing in ever-increasing numbers to protect their children and their public schools," member Susan Cauldwell wrote in a joint op-ed with New Jersey Education Association President Wendell Steinhauer.
An unrelated group, United Opt Out NJ, existed prior to PARCC testing but experienced a groundswell of support beginning in January, said Jean McTavish one of the groups leaders.
The group advocates refusing standardized testing as a way for parents to get a seat at the table in decisions made about public school education.
"I feel like we are starting to be heard," McTavish said after the state Assembly supported a bill protecting students' right to opt out of PARCC. "And that's a great thing."
But early reports from the state indicate that the majority of New Jersey students have participated in testing. The state Department of Education maintains that some parents are misinformed about the tests and has said it hopes parents see the value of PARCC when score reports are released in the fall.
Through a television advertising campaign, screenings of an anti-testing documentary, and public testimony, the New Jersey Education Association has used significant resources to denounce PARCC as flawed tests that are stealing instructional time and proliferating an overemphasis on testing.
At Take The PARCC events, billed as a chance for parents to see the exams firsthand, some local unions provided anti-testing literature and aired their grievances with the new tests.
Parents interviewed by NJ Advance Media and those who have testified in public have commonly listed teacher opposition as a contributing factor in their own concerns about the tests.
"You trust your teachers," said Ann Messler, a Clark Township parent who submitted a PARCC refusal letter for her son. "If the teachers aren't for it, then what good is it?"
A measure of student academic growth extracted from PARCC scores will be a 10 percent weight in the evaluation of some teachers, and skeptics have questioned whether the NJEA sees the PARCC resistance movement as a way to escape the use of student data in teacher performance reviews.
The union has continually denied that the use of PARCC data in evaluations is the origin of its opposition.
Led by the New Jersey PTA, a coalition called We Raise NJ includes The New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, The New Jersey Association of School Administrators and the New Jersey School Boards Association, among other state organizations.
We Raise NJ does not endorse PARCC — it says its efforts are often perceived as pro-PARCC — but it does aim to support New Jersey students who are participating in testing.
The group launched its own website with a video about PARCC and tips for parents to help prepare students for the exams.
"As parents, we need not breed fear in our children by being fearful ourselves in the face of uncertainty," New Jersey PTA president Debbie Tyrrell said at January's state Board of Education meeting.
NJPSA Executive Director Pat Wright has called PARCC results the "missing link" in New Jersey's approach to state assessment.
"Once the PARCC assessments have been administered, the standard setting process completed, and necessary adjustment made based upon New Jersey's PARCC experience, we believe that teachers and principals will be empowered with more timely, relevant data derived from these assessments to improve instruction in our schools," Wright told the Assembly Education Committee.
The group, especially the PTA, has received scorn from parents in the resistance movement. When the PTA was mentioned at a recent Senate Education Committee meeting, parents laughed, prompting the committee chair to call for order.
Some parents are skeptical of the New Jersey PTA because the National PTA received a $1 million grant to support the implementation of Common Core, the academic standards used for PARCC testing.
The Department of Education
Communication from the state about PARCC has come primarily through memos sent to school districts, interviews with New Jersey media or presentations at state Board of Education meetings
In a February presentation the department compared sample student score reports for PARCC to reports from prior standardized tests, saying PARCC results should shift conversations to deeper levels, like how parents and teachers can work together to improve a child's skills.
Parents will now see an explanation of the skills being tested and how their child compared to the school average, state average, district average and PARCC average, a comparison to students in other states taking the same test.
"In a very quick nutshell you can identify that, for instance, Kevin is below strong command in modeling applications," Assistant Education Commissioner Bari Erlichson said.
But the department has been criticized for its communication leading up to the rollout of the new exams.
"I don't think the state Department of Education has done a particularly good job of educating the public about these exams and why they exist," said Daniel Katz, director of secondary and secondary-special education at Seton Hall University.
State lawmakers were also critical of the department when Education Commissioner David Hespe testified before the Senate Education Committee on March 12.
"Nobody explained (PARCC) to me other than parents and hearing from administrators, teachers and some of the students who feel that they are being put through a meat grinder by taking this test," Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) said.
Hespe said the department has tried to get information to the community but it doesn't have the budget to compete with expensive ad campaigns against PARCC