Millburn Graduate Takes On Millburn Superintendent’s Logic

Dear Superintendent Crisfield:

As a graduate of the Millburn Public Schools (Class of 1991) where you currently serve as Superintendent, I feel compelled to respond to your February 19, 2015 NJ Spotlight Op-Ed regarding the movement to refuse the PARCC tests. But first please indulge me in a brief digression:

My History in the Millburn Public Schools

I began kindergarten at Millburn’s Deerfield School in the fall of 1978. From kindergarten forward, school was a place where I felt valued as a human being, and where learning was something that everyone around me took seriously. Even today, as a mother of two elementary school students myself, I look back on my Millburn education as the gold-standard of what a public education can and should be. I remember each of my elementary school teachers by name, and I can still recall many of the projects I worked on in their classes.

My Millburn education is the foundation that allowed me to graduate from Millburn as a National Merit Semi-Finalist, go on to complete my undergraduate studies at Wesleyan University, and eventually allowed me to earn two graduate degrees: an M.A.T. from the University of Maine, and eventually a J.D. from Rutgers-Newark. My Millburn peers have been extraordinarily successful. Just look at award-winning young adult author and editor David Levithan (he was one of the editors-in-chief of The Miller when I was a staff member), or one of the co-valedictorians of the class of 1991, my close friend Debbie James, who is a terrific Harvard-educated primary care pediatrician up in Cambridge. Our graduates are successful in all walks of life, and it’s insane to think that Millburn students — then or now — leave the high school as anything other than “college and career ready.”

As a mother, my Millburn education means that I know what public education can and should be. I now live in Montclair. After months of inquiry, I joined the PARCC-refusal movement as a protest against what the high-stakes testing culture is doing to prevent my kids’ teachers from engaging them the way that my Millburn teachers engaged me.

Contrary to your mischaracterization of parents’ motivations, I did not join the opt-out movement because I am “looking out for what [I] feel is [my] child’s best interest.” You state:

I know the PARCC opt-out movement is popular, and I know the people who are part of it are only looking out for what they feel is their child’s best interest, so I do not blame them personally. But from the systemic perspective, opting out is a concept that cannot work. Even though it will be unpopular and will attract an aggressive reaction, somebody has to stand up and point out that the opt-out movement has to stop. It is just not a practical or viable approach to public education.

Frankly, my kid (like most of her contemporaries in Millburn) will be fine whether she takes the PARCC test or not. I joined the test-refusal movement because the systemic pressure placed on public schools by high-stakes standardized testing must be stopped for the sakes of all of our children. We can and must do better by our kids, and if educational leaders like yourself are unwilling to step up to the plate, then we parents have no choice but to step in to preserve our vision of what public schools can and should be.

Your Arguments

Your editorial boils down to a slippery slope argument that misses the larger point of what the high-stakes standardized test movement is about. In addition, you conflate a broader category (assessment) with a far narrower subset of that category (high-stakes standardized tests). Indeed, within that logical fallacy, you also conflate the low-stakes standardized tests of the pre-No Child Left Behind days with the high-stakes standardized tests of today. Finally, you throw in a good dose of patronizing adjectives to describe your community’s parents (the loaded word “hysterical” used to describe a largely woman-driven movement is particularly egregious).

First, your slippery slope argument relies on a few inartfully worded refusal letters to take the position that the grassroots movement against high-stakes standardized tests is “leading us down a very dangerous path” (i.e., down a classic slippery slope). You argue:

[O]pting out of things with such broad brush strokes is different, and taken to its extreme, this new version of opting out will destroy public education as we know it today. If we don’t stop facilitating and/or encouraging all this “opting out” or “refusing” (or whatever it’s called), we might as well set up a la carte public schools.

Your concern stems from refusal letters penned by some of your parents that not only refuse the PARCC test itself, but also refuse “anything to do with the Common Core.” I agree: that’s a silly position for a parent to take. But you are your community’s educational leader. To a large degree I’d posit that the blame for those inartful letters lies with you, as their leader, for not leading your community through conversation and consensus-building around community reaction to the PARCC tests and how Millburn could push back against state and federal edicts, especially considering that its reliance on state and federal dollars is relatively minimal. Instead, what I’ve been hearing is that at Millburn High School, your administration has been using Common Core to enforce lock-step curriculum on your highly-skilled and professional teachers. For instance, I’ve gotten confirmation from multiple sources that your high school English department now requires all teachers of the same course to teach the same lesson plans on the same day, which, to be frank, I find anathema to everything I valued about my own Millburn education. That’s leadership by fiat, which is a far cry from leadership through consensus-building in partnership with Millburn’s highly-skilled faculty. My jaw hit the floor when I first heard that story, and despite the multiple confirmations I’ve gathered, I still have a hard time believing it’s true. What it does tell me is how scared and beaten-down even Millburn’s teachers must feel, and that’s a tragedy for everyone involved with Millburn public education — especially the students.

Next, your piece creates a straw-man argument by conflating two things that aren’t synonymous: assessment and high-stakes standardized testing. High-stakes standardized testing is indisputably one form of assessment, but not all assessment takes the form of high-stakes standardized testing. You then imply that parents who refuse PARCC are also refusing to allow their kids to be assessed by their classroom teachers. Your logic is again flawed.

In point of fact, I have yet to meet a parent or teacher involved in the test-refusal movement who thinks that we shouldn’t assess kids. Indeed, I have yet to meet a parent or teacher involved in the test-refusal movement who thinks that teachers should not be allowed to test students. But as I’m sure you recall from your graduate studies (I certainly do from mine), assessment does not require testing, and certainly all tests need not be high-stakes tests used to punish schools, teachers, administrators, and students.

You imply that parents who are refusing PARCC are also refusing to allow teachers to assess their students. Nothing could be further from the truth. During my years in the Millburn Public Schools, my work on each of the projects mentioned above was assessed by my teachers. I am sure that Millburn parents continue to welcome teachers’ feedback — at conferences, on report cards, and via grades on individual assignments — on their children’s growth as students. Your argument is, frankly, sad, and I would have expected more from the leader of the talented faculty who comprise the Millburn Public Schools.

Similarly, you also conflate the low-stakes Iowas and similar norm-referenced standardized tests of yore (in my time, they were actually CTBS, not Iowas, but I digress) with the high-stakes HSPA, NJ ASK, and now PARCC that post-date No Child Left Behind. This argument not only conflates unlike things (the Iowa and CTBS type test scores were not aggregated and published to the community at large to be touted by real estate agents), but it is also disingenuous, as Iowa and CTBS test scores weren’t used as a potential basis to fire teachers and reconstitute or close schools. Unlike the post-No Child Left Behind criterion-referenced state-wide tests, the CTBS tests of my youth were low-stakes standardized tests, and thus were functionally distinct from HSPA, NJ ASK, and now PARCC. At most, the low-stakes standardized tests of my childhood were one factor among many used to place kids into gifted and talented programs.

Finally, you characterize test-refusing parents as “hysterical.” As I am sure you are aware, the root of the word “hysterical” is in the Greek for “uterus.” Feminist scholars have analyzed how accusations of hysteria against women-led movements are a common means of social control exerted by straight, white men against woman-led social movements. I’m sure this was not your intent, and in fact I find real irony in your use of the word “hysterical” to describe the grassroots organizers against the PARCC given the nature of your own arguments, which truly are hysterical given that they rely on propaganda techniques such as the slippery slope and conflating similar terms. Nevertheless, your linguistic choice, although presumably unintentional, is patronizing and acts as an attempt to exert patriarchal control over a largely woman-led movement. As an aside, you can thank Dr. Cullen-Bender, my 7th grade Millburn Junior High School Communication Skills teacher, for my ability to identify, analyze, and reject the types of propaganda and false-logic techniques that form the basis of your editorial.

Proposals for Collaboration and Consensus-Building:

As a Millburn graduate, I have a few suggestions:

1. You mention some of your own concerns with the effects of high-stakes testing (e.g., that they take too long to administer, that they lead to problematic comparisons between district and schools, and, worst of all, that they’re inappropriately used to evaluate teachers). Those are many of the same reasons cited by the parents in your community for refusing the PARCC. I’d guess that along with those concerns, many of your local parents are also concerned that high-stakes testing in general — and PARCC in particular — is leading toward the same narrowing of the curriculum that led me as a Montclair parent to refuse to allow my daughter to be tested.

What if, instead of fighting your parents over their legitimate concerns with the narrowing of world-class curriculum I benefited from in the Millburn Public Schools, you instead helped to lead the test-refusal movement, and in leading it, worked with your local parents to craft a test-refusal form that was limited to the specific issue at hand: high-stakes statewide standardized testing?

Test-refusal letters don’t need to be like the ones you mentioned. In a district like mine (Montclair), in the wake of our Board’s courageous decision to lead by passing a refusal policy, here’s the full-text of my refusal email to my daughter’s principal:

In accordance with the district policy passed by our Board of Education last night, I am writing to notify you that I refuse to allow Elizabeth Blaine to take the PARCC test. Please let me know that you’ve received and recorded this note. In addition, please advise (at your earliest convenience) what alternative arrangements Hillside is making for students who refuse.

As you know, our decisions is in no way a reflection on you or Hillside School. Rather, it is our attempt to stand with you and with Elizabeth’s teachers by refusing to allow student test scores to determine the fates of our teachers and our schools.

Thank you.

You’ll note that there’s no muss, no fuss, and no slippery slope to complain about. But that’s because despite our differences (and we have many over in opinionated Montclair), we were ultimately able to come together as a community to craft a refusal policy that respects our community’s legitimate concerns about the use of the PARCC tests. Millburn parents would have been far better served if you (or Millburn’s Board of Education) had done the same, rather than chastising them for the concerns that even you agree are legitimate.

2. What if, instead of drafting a poison pen op-ed criticizing your students’ parents, you instead led them in effective protest against PARCC and other high-stakes tests, as, for instance, Principal Carol Burris has done over on Long Island?

Then you’d be controlling the message and ensuring that the PARCC refusals were limited to PARCC (and perhaps NJ ASK), rather than seeking to refuse everything under the sun.

3. What if you gave your students hands-on education in the democratic process by allowing them to participate — during school hours and of course on an elective basis — in the democratic processes aimed at reducing the annual high-stakes testing requirements by, for instance, lobbying their state and federal legislators in favor of bills like A-4165, A-4190, and A-3079 and a grade-span testing version of the ESEA reauthorization; attending and commenting at local and state school board meetings; and testifying before the NJ Assembly and NJ Senate’s Education Committees?

Then your students would have the sort of real world authentic educational experience that they’d remember for the rest of their lives, even more than I remember the projects my Deerfield teachers created for me.

4. What if you had led your parents through consensus building and educating them about the issues facing public schools today (e.g., that the proper target of their anger with Common Core is activism at the state and federal levels, rather than local refusals) instead of berating them with your own “hysterical” slippery slope arguments (e.g., your “opting out will destroy public education as we know it today” argument discussed herein) against the straw-man of parents’ inartfully crafted refusal letters that include opting-out of Common Core curriculum as well as PARCC?

Then you’d be able to gather data to show that parents in a town like Millburn want more for their kids than the narrowing of curriculum forced on schools, teachers, and communities by high-stakes standardized tests that diminish instruction in social studies and the arts. Then you’d be able to educate your parents about the real problems with decisions that have ceded educational policy making to the state and federal instead of local levels, and perhaps you’d be leading a grassroots movement to effectuate a return of education decision-making to the local level, where it can be carefully tailored to meet the individual needs of individual communities.

Parting Thoughts

You yourself note that there are precedents for opting-out of limited portions of the public school curriculum. You agree that those precedents have not “destroyed public education as we know it today.” PARCC refusal won’t — and shouldn’t — destroy public education either, as it, especially if narrowly-tailored by proactive education leaders, can and should be just as limited as refusing to dissect fetal pigs. PARCC acceptance, however, along with all of the high-stakes consequences that come along with it, might be the final nail in the coffin for local control of public education. I am not sure why Millburn’s educational leader, of all people, would quietly acquiesce in a scheme to remove the autonomy of Millburn’s overall excellent public school teachers and administrators, when he could instead have the courage of his convictions to speak out against it, like brave educational leaders (such as Carol Burris out on Long Island) have done.

I think your community would have been better served if you’d met your parents halfway by responding to their concerns about, for instance, the Common Core ELA standards’ emphasis on reading texts without considering their broader literary and historical contexts. You could have assuaged parents’ legitimate concerns by assuring them that Millburn wasn’t going to stop providing its students with a broad-based public education that includes analysis of texts that draws on the reader’s response rather than only Common Core analyses that ask students to divine the “author’s intent.”

Similarly, imagine if you’d relied on the historical knowledge I know still exists over there in Millburn to tell parents that back in the early 1980’s, we were solving math problems with number lines and manipulatives too — and that such techniques are not, popular wisdom aside, specific to “Common Core.”

But you won’t build credibility unless you’re also honest about any degradation of the elementary school social studies curriculum, or other district-level choices, such as limiting electives and specials offerings, that you may have felt were no choice at all because of the pressures — especially in a town like Millburn, where test scores are a major component of identity and self-worth — to ensure that your students scored well on the test du jour.

What I as a parent don’t welcome is feedback from a computer-based high-stakes (because it will, as you noted, be used to rank teachers, principals, administrators, districts, and schools) standardized test not tailored to what my child’s teachers have used their professional judgment to teach my child. I further object to forcing our professional teachers to tailor their teaching to such high-stakes tests, rather than allowing classroom teachers to design assessments of all sorts that best measure student achievement.

If my child was offered low-stakes and norm-referenced standardized tests once or twice during her educational career as a check-in (such as the CTBS tests I recall taking in the 4th grade at Deerfield and in the 8th grade, I think, at the Junior High), I’d welcome that feedback as two data points among many. But the “feedback” from the PARCC, which will, as you note, be used inappropriately to rank teachers, schools, and districts, is not worth the price. It’s too bad that you can’t see the distinction, and that you’ve instead chosen to lead your community by going public with a slippery slope argument that fails to draw a distinction between teacher-created in-class assessment and statewide high-stakes standardized tests.

Perhaps Millburn would have been better off if you could have benefited from the critical thinking required by an old-fashioned Millburn education? As a test-refusing parent, that old-fashioned progressive Millburn-style education is all I want for my kids.


Mrs. Blaine Goes to Trenton

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.

Some Observations

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?

The Takeaway

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.

Thank you.

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.

Thank you.


MPS Infra Trials

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 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.

BOE Passes PARCC Refusal Policy

Here is more or less what I said to the Montclair Board of Education tonight (they actually changed the agenda so I ended up commenting before the policy was voted on, but you get the gist and yes, the policy passed, 6-0).

I just want to take a brief moment to thank you for passing the PARCC
refusal policy. You are volunteers for a difficult job, and I don’t
envy you. So, now that we have a growing refusal movement here in
Montclair, let’s talk about what can be.

I know what you have to do. I’ve read statutes, regulations, and your
ethics code. You’re often stuck, because you’re required to implement
state and federal law. I have no quibbles with that.

But implementing state and federal law doesn’t require you to remain
silent when those laws are counterproductive. You can implement AND
speak out. Just look at Acting Superintendent Jim O’Neill in
Livingston. Look at BOE President Dan Anderson in Bloomfield. Look at
Superintendent Carol Grossi in Hanover Park.

You’ve got options. For instance, instead of a strategic plan that
requires us to test our kids four times a year to see if they’re ready
for a fifth test, you could ensure accountability with a system where
teachers and students to work together to build portfolios demonstrating
kids’ growth toward achieving our community’s high standards. I admit
— portfolios can’t be easily converted to numbers on a bar graph, to
quantitative analyses of our kids’ qualitative successes. But numbers
aren’t everything. And portfolios are proof of whether our schools are
doing their jobs.

We had a portfolio program where I taught, and the New York Performance
Assessment Consortium uses portfolios instead of testing today. There
are other options. Other visions.

Where I taught, our seniors presented capstone projects to panels of
evaluators. One senior presentation I attended was by a young man who’d
never read a whole novel when he entered my junior English class. But
that year he discovered a love of literature. His senior project was a
prizewinning independent study of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. After the
awards ceremony, this kid told me that this was the first time his
father had ever said, “Son, I’m proud of you.”

So I stand here today to ask: can’t we advocate for better laws for you
to implement?

Can’t we encourage broad-based community engagement toward finding
better ways to assess our kids’ growth?

Can’t we publicly build consensus about our vision for our kids, and
reject the views of those who regard public comment as something to be
endured, rather than as a cornerstone of our democracy?

Thank you again for passing the PARCC refusal policy. It’s a step in the
right direction. But let’s make this a first step toward a better
vision. Thank you.