Setting the Scene
Today my husband, Mike Blaine, and I prevailed on a neighbor to take our younger daughter to the bus stop, dropped our older daughter off for before-school band practice, and headed to Trenton. We’d both spent some time preparing our testimony in support of two of three bills pending today before the State Assembly’s Education Committee: A-4165, which codifies into law a parent’s right to opt kids out of statewide standardized testing, such as the PARCC tests (and codifies the schools’ responsibilities to provide educationally appropriate alternatives for those kids rather than forcing them to “sit & stare”), and A-4190, which places a three year moratorium on making any placement or graduation decisions based on students’ PARCC scores. You can find our testimony below.
We arrived in the hearing room a few minutes before ten, and waited in the crowded (standing room only) room while the legislative aides photocopied more speaker slips, as there were so many people who wanted to speak that they’d run out. Once the new speaker slips came out, we filled them out. Activist Jacklyn Brown was kind enough to clear her giant box of 14,000+ signatures on a petition favoring PARCC refusal policies off of the last remaining chair in the room, so that I could grab a seat. My poor husband, who’d come along for the ride, had to stand in the back of the room. I logged into the State House’s free wifi (thank you, fellow taxpayers), and live updated the whole thing on a post in the Facebook group Opt Out of State Standardized Tests – New Jersey (I highly recommend this group if you’re not already a member). Thank you again to Jacklyn — if I hadn’t had a seat, I couldn’t have live-updated the 7000+ member NJ Opt-Out/Refusal group in real time.
The Assembly Education Committee first considered and quickly voted in favor of A-3079, which prohibits summative standardized testing in grades K-2. Then the fireworks began. It was clear that the mood in the room was strongly on the anti-PARCC side. Every anti-PARCC speaker was followed by enthusiastic applause from around the room. The many lobbyists in favor of PARCC (almost all seemed to have affiliations that dictated their positions and most seemed to be getting paid in some way or another for their time today) received smatterings of light applause from maybe a half-dozen people or so. A-4165 was listed for discussion only, apparently because the Committee is still researching to determine definitively whether less than 95% PARCC participation could cost the state federal dollars; A-4190 was listed for discussion and a vote.
The good news is that in the end, A-4190 passed the Assembly Education Committee 6-0. I very much appreciate that, and I thank the members of the Committee for passing this bill. I strongly encourage them to pass A-4165 as expeditiously as possible, given that PARCC testing begins 18 days from today.
The Education Committee hearing lasted for three hours, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. There were at least 44 people signed up to speak. At 3 minutes per speaker, that would have been 132 minutes (2 hours and 12 minutes) of testimony. Yet the Chair of the Committee, Asm. Patrick Diegnan, instead chose to allow the paid lobbyists, in particular, to testify for 10-20 minutes at a pop. This caused the predictable result that about half of the speakers signed up to speak (including Mike and me) did not get a chance. Further, it appears from my notes that the Chairman choose roughly equal numbers of speakers to speak for and against the resolutions (the speaker slips required you to indicate whether you were for or against the bill), despite the fact that it seemed clear from the mood of the room that the vast majority of total speakers signed up to speak were in favor of the bills.
Just before the end of the hearing, Asm. Diegnan did read the names of those who wouldn’t get to speak, and apologized to us. However, I’ll note that he did not indicate the pro/con stance of the speakers who did not get to be heard. As I said above, although I do not know this for sure, I suspect that virtually all of the unheard speakers were people who would have spoken in favor of the bills.
After the hearing, I managed to corner Asm. Diegnan for a few minutes, and while I thanked him very much for his work on the bills, I did indicate my frustration at how the hearing had been run. To me, it seems like an affront to democracy to allow paid lobbyists unlimited time to address the committee (and a few of them, especially later in the hearing, appeared to be intentionally filibustering to preclude more anti-PARCC speakers from getting a chance) when so many parents, like me, had taken a day off work specifically to travel to Trenton to speak our minds to the Committee — and due to the deference given to the paid lobbyists, were not given a chance to do so. Asm. Diegnan certainly could have set — and enforced — reasonable time limits for the speakers. In my opinion, that would have been the more democratic thing to do.
The most breathtakingly evil thing I heard said today was said by paid Common Core shill Sandra Alberti. This is the same woman who debated in favor of PARCC on NJ101.5. In the NJ101.5 debate, she expressed her disdain for the democratic process when she referred to public testimony as something she and her colleagues were required to “endure” (rather than listen to, value, or learn from) back when she worked for the Department of Education.
But today she put her prior nastiness to shame, when she spoke against A-4165. She said:
“There are schools where parents can opt out. They’re called private schools.”
The privilege inherent in that comment is simply breathtaking. This woman suggested that Common Core and PARCC are good for the unwashed masses, but that the wealthy alone should have the option of a better education for their kids, as only the wealthy (like Governor Christie, Bill Gates, and President Barack Obama) have the opportunity to send their kids to expensive private schools. I’ll write more another day about the hubris of the education reform camp. For the moment, suffice it to say that it is truly hard for me to fathom that this woman thinks that it’s okay to say — in public — that public school parents should be forced to subject their children to PARCC testing simply because their children’s education is taxpayer rather than tuition funded. According to Alberti’s view of the world, apparently parental control over children’s education is something that should only be available to the wealthiest among us.
But I guess her comments aren’t surprising, as it’s clear from her earlier comments on NJ101.5 that she sees democracy as something to be endured, rather than as a cornerstone of what it means to be American. That is, Alberti believes that government by and for the oligarchs (and their technocratic minions, like her) the natural order of things.
Perhaps Alberti would have benefited from a bit more civics education, rather than a curriculum so heavily focused on the English Language Arts and mathematics?
Overall, I am thrilled that A-4190 and A-3079 passed the Assembly Education Committee, and I hope that both bills are listed for votes by the full Assembly shortly. And I renew my calls for the Assembly Committee to take up AND VOTE ON A-4165 as soon as possible. Again, time is of the essence, as the PARCC test is a mere 18 days away.
Sarah’s Testimony in Support of A-4165 (opt-out bill):
I am here today to express my support for A4165. I support A4165 because, as a parent, I’m seeing the narrowing of curriculum that annual high-stakes standardized testing is having on our public schools. I define high-stakes standardized testing as testing used to potentially impose sanctions on schools and teachers, as well as for graduation and placement decisions for individual students. As a protest against narrowing of curriculum in response to high-stakes testing pressures, our family is refusing to allow my daughter to be tested this year.
My older daughter is a 4th grader in Montclair. Here are two examples of what I mean when I say that I’ve seen our kids’ curriculum narrow as a result of pressures caused by high-stakes standardized testing in mathematics, science, and the English Language Arts.
First, I’ve seen minimal social studies education. Instead, social studies time is eaten up by language arts instruction, and my fourth grader hasn’t studied the vast majority of the topics all New Jersey students should have — according to New Jersey’s Core Curriculum Content Standards — studied by the end of grade four. Here are some examples:
6.1.4.D.4 “Explain how key events led to the creation of the United States and the state of New Jersey.”
6.1.4.D.5 “Relate key historical documents (i.e., the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights) to present day government and citizenship.”
6.1.4.D.6 “Describe the civic leadership qualities and historical contributions of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin toward the development of the United States government.”
6.1.4.D.7 “Explain the role Governor William Livingston played in the development of New Jersey government.”
6.1.4.D.8 “Determine the significance of New Jersey’s role in the American Revolution”
6.1.4.D.9 “Explain the impact of trans-Atlantic slavery on New Jersey, the nation, and individuals.”
My kid — and her classmates — have studied exactly NONE of these things in the past five years of their public school experience.
Second, in Montclair’s all-magnet school system, my daughter’s magnet school is committed to helping all children to discover their unique gifts and talents through an amazing electives program that includes not only enrichment offerings in the academic subjects, but also a terrific program of arts, music, dance, and theater that really lets kids — all sorts of kids from all walks of life — find ways in which they shine. Yet last year, our school was forced to eliminate 1/3 of its elective offerings in exchange for “Response to Instruction” — that is, two more periods devoted to Language Arts and math drilling.
This is what I’m protesting when I refuse to allow my child to take the PARCC. We parents have had enough of the pressures placed on our districts, schools, and teachers by high-stakes standardized testing.
Social studies, music, the arts, and theater aren’t tested: and therefore, throughout our state, they’re taught less, if at all.
I urge you to pass A4165. I am refusing to allow my child to test because it is the boldest way I can say: ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. Let’s ensure that parents throughout our state can band together to do the same.
Mike’s Testimony in Support of A-4165:
My name is Michael Blaine and I live in Montclair, New Jersey. I have two daughters, ages 6 and 10, in the Montclair school district. I am a practicing attorney, with a previous career in information technology. Assembly bill A4165 should be passed because it provides an important option for parents who feel their children are being subjected to excessive and educationally “unhelpful” standardized testing. Presently, about 100 school districts around the state have policies that at least somewhat conform to the language of this bill, giving parents a right to refuse to have their children participate in the PARCC testing. But these policies are not uniform, and some districts have no policy at all.
Some districts allow for opting out of the testing, and call for educationally appropriate alternatives for those students who do opt out. Yet other districts seem to contemplate having students “sit and stare” in the classroom instead of taking the test. Still other districts remain silent on the issue and don’t yet have a policy at all. Finally, some districts actually have a policy that insists that students must take the PARCC exams or face some kind of negative consequence.
It is time for the Assembly to pass this bill and set a statewide standard for how this issue should be handled by the districts.
Additionally, until the PARCC assessments develop a track record and demonstrate that they are actually useful, and that they actually provide valuable data, parents should have the right to opt their children out and thereby take a wait and see attitude. There are grave concerns from many people over whether the PARCC assessments are developmentally appropriate to the grade levels being tested and there are further concerns over the excessive test preparation time being devoted by teachers and students instead of engaging in regular classroom lessons. These issues may be ironed out over time. But, until they are, parents shouldn’t be forced to have their children used as “guinea pigs” until the PARCC tests can evolve to where the tests get a “passing score” regarding their own usefulness and appropriateness.
Sarah’s Testimony in Support of A-4190 (no impact on students based on PARCC results):
I am here today to express my support for A4190. Given that the PARCC tests have not been proven reliable or valid on any sort of research-driven, peer-reviewed basis, and given that the PARCC tests are the first statewide tests to be administered on computers to children as young as eight years old, I think it is incumbent on you, our legislators, to ensure that high-stakes decisions are not made based on the results of these tests.
I attended the Montclair, NJ Board of Education meeting this past Monday, February 9th. At that meeting, Montclair Public Schools’ Director of Technology, Barry Haines, presented the results of the late January and early February PARCC grade-level infrastructure testing. Attached to my testimony is Haines’s handout setting out the results of those trials.
Approximately 1,320 of the 1,500 students who participated in the PARCC infrastructure trials were able to complete them. As Haines stated, the remaining 180 students — 12% of the total — could not complete the trials due to technology issues. Our district budgeted one million dollars last year for network, bandwidth, device, and other technology upgrades to prepare for the PARCC. As I understand it, substantially more than that was actually spent. Yet a mere twenty-one days before the first day of PARCC testing, the district reported that twelve percent of our students couldn’t complete a trial test due to technology issues. And trust me, our Superintendent, who is a former NJDOE employee, is one of the biggest PARCC cheerleaders out there — she’s been doing everything in her power to make this test work. Even under her leadership, more than 1 out of 10 students couldn’t get the test done due to technology failures.
The handout states: “Some of the problems that kept students from successfully completing the infrastructure trials appear to have been problems with the Pearson server and Pearson software, rather than with the district’s infrastructure”; “We have reported these problems to Pearson and are aware that other school districts have experienced similar problems when conducting their own trials”; and “For this reason, it is also incumbent upon Pearson to remedy the issues identified by school districts conducting infrastructure trials.”
Given these problems, there is a substantial likelihood that testing environments across the state will be disturbed as district personnel work with individual students to reboot computers, swap out computers, and speak on the phone with Pearson technical support. As test administrators attempt to troubleshoot problems, other students in the same classroom will be trying to complete these tests. Many of these are little kids: 8, 9, and 10 years old. I can tell you that if my daughter’s neighbor was having these problems during a test, my daughter would be distracted and paying attention to the troubleshooting process, and not to her own test.
Under these circumstances, it is impossible for the results of these tests to be valid. I urge you to vote in favor of A4190, so that we can ensure that no high-stakes consequences for our kids, such as graduation and placement decisions, are attached to the results of these tests.
Furthermore, our teachers deserve no less. This Committee should immediately take up similar legislation placing a moratorium on any use of PARCC test results in teacher evaluations for at least the next three years.
Handout from Feb. 9, 2015 Montclair Public Schools Board of Education Meeting re PARCC Infrastructure Trial
Mike’s Testimony in Favor of A-4190:
My name is Michael Blaine and I live in Montclair, New Jersey. I have two daughters, ages 6 and 10, in the Montclair school district. I am a practicing attorney, with a previous career in information technology. Prior to going to Law School at Rutgers, I was an information Technology Director at AT&T, where one of my responsibilities involved the the implementation and roll out of large scale computer systems. As such, I can speak from experience and tell you that the upcoming adminsitration of the PARCC exams will not be 100% smooth from a technology persepctive, and that’s why the Assembly should pass this bill.
We need a moratorium on using the results of the PARCC exams for anything that might prove detrimental to students or teachers, until we can be sure that the software and hardware work sufficiently well that all students can actually successfully complete the exams. If a student can’t graduate because he or she couldn’t finish the PARCC exam due to a “computer crash” or a technology issue, we all have a big problem.
Think for a minute about large scale computer system implementations you have heard about that “went south” on day one. Remember the Obamacare website at heathcare.gov? Lots of problems on the first day. Or since we are in the political arena, how about Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign that had serious computer system issues on election day? Those are exactly the kind of examples we need to worry about with the PARCC exams. This is the first time we will be trying to have a state wide assessment test that is completely computer based and not a paper and pencil test. That’s a really big technology challenge.
Without a moratorium on using the results of the PARCC tests for advance placement or graduation, our students can’t afford for the PARCC tests not to work 100% perfectly on day one, and trust me, they probably won’t. A moratorium will give time for the very capable IT people in our school districts to fix the bugs in the system, learn from any mistakes that are made, and make sure we don’t have a situation in the future where students can’t complete the exam becuase of technology issues.