As Common Core Testing Is Ushered In, Parents and Students Opt Out



BLOOMFIELD, N.J. — On Monday morning, a few hundred students will file into classrooms at Bloomfield Middle School, open laptops and begin a new standardized test, one mandated across New Jersey and several other states for the first time this year.

About a dozen of their classmates, however, will be elsewhere. They will sit in a nearby art room, where they will read books, do a little drawing and maybe paint.

What they will not do is take the test, because they and their parents have flatly refused.

A new wave of standardized exams, designed to assess whether students are learning in step with the Common Core standards, is sweeping the country, arriving this week in classrooms in several states and entering the cross hairs of various political movements. In New Jersey and elsewhere, the arrival has been marked with well-organized opposition, a spate of television attack ads and a cascade of parental anxiety.

Almost every state has an “opt out” movement. Its true size is hard to gauge, but the protests on Facebook, at school board meetings and in more creative venues — including screenings of anti-testing documentaries — have caught the attention of education officials.

Some school superintendents have bemoaned the exams, while others have warned that they were obligatory. And even parents who share in the antipathy toward the tests are torn by the implications of formally allowing their children to bow out of them.

Colorado’s Board of Education voted in January to allow school districts to skip portions of the state tests, only to be told by the state’s attorney general that it did not have that authority. At a testing information session for parents in Sparta, N.J., according to a local news report, an assistant superintendent repeatedly said: “I’m not here to fight with you. I am here to give information on the mandate.”

The Common Core standards, a set of challenging learning goals designed to better prepare students for college, were developed by a coalition of states. But they became closely tied to President Obama in the public mind as his administration offered money to states that adopted the standards, which conservatives portrayed as a stealth federal takeover of schools.

Tests that gauge how well students are learning the new material have become part of the way many states evaluate their teachers. This makes the tests a target for teachers’ unions, a bulwark of the left.

So the new batch of tests in New Jersey, created by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, is faced with an unusually diverse list of enemies.

“There are forces united against it on the left side of the aisle and the right of the aisle,” said James Crisfield, a former superintendent of the school district in Millburn, N.J. “We’re also talking about things that are happening to one’s child. You mix that all up into a caldron and it does create some really high levels of interest, high levels of passion — and, shall we say, enthusiasm.”

New Jersey’s teachers’ union, the New Jersey Education Association, is in the midst of a six-week run of advertisements against the partnership, one of which features an emotional parent describing his overworked first grader, and another talking about the elimination of science classes to make way for test preparation. (Testing begins in third grade, but the union contends that schools begin grooming students for it earlier.)

Teachers in the state who instruct classes to be tested will see 10 percent of their evaluation tied to this year’s exams. That is down from the 30 percent the state initially announced. The figure will be re-evaluated before a decision is made on next year’s percentage.

Steve Wollmer, director of communications for the union, said the group does not oppose teacher evaluations. The union was motivated to get involved, he said, because true teaching is being replaced by test preparation. He also said union members were concerned that poor students would be at a disadvantage because the tests will be taken on computers, and those students might have less experience with keyboards.

Some of the loudest objections to the tests, which are also being used by 10 other states and Washington, D.C., are coming from parents.

Several groups in New Jersey, at least one working closely with the teachers’ union, have organized events where parents can take the exam for themselves or watch movies about the dangers of too much standardized testing. One such event was scheduled for Sunday for parents to gather at a Montclair firehouse to nibble light refreshments while watching “The Other Parcc: Parents Advocating Refusal on High Stakes Testing.”

One of the organizers, Christine McGoey, has two children in the local school system, and both will be sitting out the tests.

“I’m refusing because we’re taking a stand against this deeply flawed policy,” Ms. McGoey said. Parents who object to the tests have been communicating their concerns to local officials, she said, “but they’re just not listening.”

“I feel like the only thing left to do is just say no,” she said.

While these parent groups are vocal and get a lot of attention on social media, it is difficult to know how many people actually stand with them or how many will refuse the tests for their children. In the Millburn School District, about a dozen students had refused as of last week; in Bloomfield, 97 of about 6,200 students had opted out.

“Our board of education has taken a very strong stance against standardized testing,” said Salvatore Goncalves, superintendent of the Bloomfield School District, who added that there was “no doubt” children were being tested too much.

In New York last year, the state’s second year of Common Core-aligned testing, 49,000 students did not take the English test, according to the State Department of Education, while 67,000 skipped the math portion — numbers that include not only refusals, but also any student who did not take the tests for a “known valid reason.” Statewide, 1.1 million students took the assessments.

Education officials and some experts say the new tests, which require more writing and critical thinking, as opposed to filling in bubbles on an answer sheet, are a vast improvement over previous exams. And the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers will give detailed, individual feedback to children in New Jersey for the first time. But in virtually every state, the tests will be tougher than the old ones, stoking fears that scores will plummet, as they did when New York began using its new exams.

There are generally few repercussions for students who do not take the tests, but if more than 5 percent of the student body at a given school or district opts out, that school may risk certain consequences, like greater monitoring or the loss of money for needy students.

While some superintendents have condoned or at least tolerated the opt-out movement, others have not. William Petrick, for example, schools superintendent in Little Falls, N.J., said his district would handle refusals “the way we handle any other disciplinary issue.”

Even Mr. Crisfield, who allowed opt-outs, expressed frustration with the movement, saying that refusing to take a test was not a right.

“What you have is a right to a free public education, and here’s the package we have for you,” he said. “You can’t choose to have P.E. on Tuesday and every other Thursday. You can’t choose not to take the calculus test.”

Mr. Crisfield added: “I just worry about opting out as a conceit, that if it extends beyond Parcc, it will start eating away at the strength of public education.”

Selma Avdicevic, a parent with two children in Montclair public schools, said that while nobody enjoys standardized tests, “there is no other objective way to measure classroom success in public schools.” Tests, she said, including the SATs, finals and the LSATs, are part of the “reality of our life.”

Ultimately, even many parents who are skeptical of the standardized tests are likely to have their children go ahead and take them. Jenn Laino, who shivered outside the Brookdale School in Bloomfield last week waiting for her third grader, said that she signed a petition on Facebook objecting to the test, but that her daughter would sit for the exam all the same.

“She’s pretty much a straight-A student,” Ms. Laino said, “which might affect how I feel about it.”

A version of this article appears in print on March 2, 2015, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: As New Testing Is Ushered in, Some Sit It Out.


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