NJ’s ‘Pass PARCC to Graduate’ Rule Raises Alarm at Pinelands Regional

Passing Tests in Algebra 1, 10th Grade English Is Mandatory
By RICK MELLERUP | Feb 08, 2017

Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers tests have been controversial since their birth, and you can bet PARCC is going to be a matter of much conversation at the Pinelands Regional School District in the coming years.

The tests were developed starting in 2010. At that time, 24 states and the District of Columbia were in the PARCC consortium. But states started dropping like flies in 2013, with Alabama the first to exit. Now only New Jersey, seven other states, D.C. and the Bureau of Indian Education remain.

There were multiple reasons given for tossing PARCC to the winds, along with a competing system, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which started with 32 member states but is now down to 14. Florida, for example, said Common Core and PARCC were unconstitutional intrusions by the federal government into states’ affairs, echoing a position taken by the Tea Party. Other opponents complained the standardized tests take valuable time away from classroom instruction because they force school districts and teachers to “teach to the test.” Teachers and their unions objected to the test scores being used to evaluate teacher performance.

PARCC tests started to be administered to New Jersey students in grades three through 11 in the 2014-15 school year. A new bloc of opponents emerged – students, especially high school students.

Why, they reasoned, should they have to take the tests if they weren’t necessary for graduation? Prospective colleges weren’t going to look at their PARCC scores; they’d be more interested in SAT and ACT results. And the tests, one in English Language Arts and the other in math, were long and difficult. So some students lobbied their parents to write opt-out letters excusing them from the testing. It was estimated 130,000 kids opted out or were absent from school on test days that first year. The figure dropped in 2015-16, but there were still about 70,000 students who didn’t take the PARCC tests.

Well, students effectively won’t have that option soon. In August, the New Jersey State Board of Education voted to require high school students to pass a pair of PARCC tests in order to graduate. Beginning with the class of 2021, students will be required to pass the 10th-grade English exam and the Algebra I exam to receive a diploma.

That is going to create quite a challenge for school districts, teachers and, most of all, students, because the passing rate on those exams in New Jersey so far has been dismal.

In 2016, just 44 percent of New Jersey students passed the 10th-grade English test. Meanwhile, just 41 percent passed the Algebra 1 exam.

The situation was even worse at Pinelands. In the 2015-16 school year, 291 students took the PARCC Algebra test, up 66 from the previous year. The PARCC tests are scored in five levels, with Level 1, “Not Yet Meeting Expectations,” being the lowest and Level 5, “Exceeding Expectations,” being the highest. Students will need to test at Level 4, “Meeting Expectations,” or above, to graduate come 2021.

Just 33.7 percent of the Pinelands students taking the Algebra 1 test reached Level 4. Add the 1 percent who reached Level 5, and just 34.7 percent of those taking the test “passed” it.

That was up from 31.6 percent (Level 4) and 0.4 percent (Level 5) in 2014-15. Still, a lot of students would have to retake the test, and pass, to graduate under the coming rule.

Last year, 246 Wildcats took the 10th Grade English Language Arts Literacy PARCC test. Just 17.9 percent were classified at Level 4, while 7.7 percent made the Level 5 cut. Disturbingly, 42.3 percent tested at Level 1.

Cheryl Stevenson addressed the Pinelands Regional Board of Education at its working session on Monday evening, Feb. 6. Stevenson, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, said the state board’s decision to double down on PARCC would force the district to reconsider its class scheduling, especially in algebra.

“My biggest concern is the 2021 kids,” said Stevenson. “Algebra 1 is the most failed course in the United States. … We will have to have a two-year opportunity for Algebra 1, pre-algebra in ninth and Algebra 1 in 10th, possibly concurrent with geometry.”

Even then the challenge would remain great.

“There are no quick fixes in this,” Stevenson told the board. “We have to change. We need to challenge them (the students) here so they can succeed in the real world – end of story.”

Thanks to the new graduation requirement, the Algebra 1 and 10th Grade English tests will obviously be in the spotlight in the foreseeable future. But the other PARCC tests are important as well. Schools and teachers, fairly or unfairly, are largely judged on PARCC results by the state, parents and taxpayers. And Pinelands’ problems don’t end at 10th grade.

Stevenson noted that only 19 percent of Pinelands ninth-grade students tested at Level 1 in English in 2015. As already stated, that rose to 42.3 percent of 10th-graders “not yet meeting expectations” in 2016.

There was, said Stevenson, a “massive drop off from ninth to 10th grade.”

The slide seems to continue as students grow older. In 2016, data shows 39.3 percent of ninth-grade students reached Level 4 in English, and another 9.9 percent crossed the highest line into Level 5. But those numbers dropped to 17.9 and 7.7 percent in 10th grade. Meanwhile, 22.9 percent of 11th-graders broke the Level 4 barrier in English, but not a single student made it to Level 5.

Why the drop-offs?

“We asked the kids,” said Stevenson. “What did they say? ‘We didn’t take it seriously.’”

The students aren’t dumb or poor test takers.

“PSAT and SAT scores tell a different story,” Stevenson said.

Perhaps the new graduation decree by the New Jersey State Board of Education will force students to get real, at least in Algebra 1 and 10th-grade English. Maybe they’ll need a lot of help from teachers and districts. It could be that parents are going to have to crack the whip. One thing is sure: it is going to be an interesting, and perhaps chaotic, few years at Pinelands – and in schools throughout the state.

— Rick Mellerup


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