PARCC Opt-Out Confusion Explained — Sort Of

A school policy attorney explains that while students cannot legally opt out, you "can’t handcuff a kid to the computer to take the test."

Via Shutterstock

Via Shutterstock

Like many other parents in the state of New Jersey, Jack Fairchild of Moorestown is against his children taking the controversial PARCC examination, so much so that he wrote to the Superintendent of Moorestown Township Public Schools, asking that his children be exempt. The request was denied. In a letter dated January 28, 2015, the Superintendent, Timothy Rehm, said that it was mandatory for all students enrolled in New Jersey public schools to take the standardized exam:

“The Board is required by law to administer State mandated assessments to its students. Simply put, the New Jersey Department of Education expects all students enrolled in New Jersey Public Schools to participate in New Jersey State assessment programs.”

The problem? Not all school districts in the state seem to be enforcing this rule. Mr. Fairchild, along with a host of other parents from across South Jersey, reached out to us regarding our coverage on the Haddon Township School District’s open letter to parents that explains its policy for parents who choose to disallow their children’s participation in the PARCC.

“I’m just a parent with no educational background whatsoever,” said Mr. Fairchild. “I am just disgusted with the current state of affairs.”

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal discusses a public hearing held last week at a Jersey City middle-school where dozens of parents signed up to speak regarding PARCC; one parent, a university instructor with a doctorate degree in social work, tried to take a sample third-grade PARCC math test at home and couldn’t figure out the answers. (If you want to try your luck at a sample third grade math question, click here.)

On Tuesday, Newark, New Jersey, mayor, Ras Baraka, issued a damning statement about PARCC, calling it “unproven” and supporting parental choices to have children “opt out” of the exam:

“Newarkers have had enough of standardized testing being used to harm not help their children. Many parents, students, educators, and advocates are standing up and standing together in support of their children and schools. Some parents are preparing to opt their children out of these exams, refusing to take them. They know PARCC tests are longer, more stressful, and designed to produce lower scores. They know that the district has not adequately prepared their children to sit for a computer-based test…New Jersey Department of Education should create a more fair and open assessment development process that allows for multiple approaches to assessment, provides more opportunity for educator initiative and professionalism, and is more useful and friendly for parents and families.”

The question still remains: How can some districts offer parents what many are reading as an opt-out policy for this mandatory test? We spoke with Philip W. Nicastro, vice president of Strauss Esmay Associates, LLP, a law firm that specializes in creating policy and regulation manuals for over 475 New Jersey public schools. His answer was pretty clear: Districts have to follow state law that requires all students take the PARCC; Students cannot “opt out” of the exam. However, he added, “From a practical standpoint, every district is going to have to have a procedure in place when a kid refuses to participate, because you can’t handcuff a kid to the computer to take the test.”

Keeping that in mind, the firm recently developed a document to provide informal guidance to school districts about a procedure for parents who “refuse” to have their children take the PARCC, even if an “opt-out” is not technically legal (you can read that document below). But “opt-out” and “refusal” sound like the same thing, so does this boil down to linguistics?

“Is it a semantic distinction? Yeah, I guess,” said Nicastro. “We’re not using the words ‘opt-out’ because you can’t opt-out, but you can’t force kids to push buttons on a computer, either.”

If this sounds confusing, it kind of is.

“School districts don’t know how to handle this,” said Nicastro. “They do not want it to be crazy on testing day.”

Despite the uphill battle, parents like Fairchild are determined to make the public aware of what they see as an unfair examination that, in some cases, is tied to teacher and student performance.

“The school might use persuasive tactics to encourage participation, but besides physical restraint, there is no way they can force testing,” said Fairchild.

Requests for comment from the New Jersey Department of Education and the Moorestown Township School District have not been returned.

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