Monday the day for controversial student testing in New Jersey

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N.J. Education Commissioner David Hespe hopes most parents won't opt out of the Common Core-based test. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

After nearly five years of planning and several weeks of end-stage test tumult, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) officially rolls out across New Jersey on Monday.

Students in grades three through 11 in about 2,500 schools, charters, and other facilities statewide will take the controversial Common Core State Standards-aligned test.

About three dozen of the state's approximately 600 school districts started administering the PARCC test early.

"There were some localized technology issues reported early on . . . but other than that, it was an uneventful week," state Education Department spokesman Michael Yaple said Friday.

How many students will actually take the test is a big unknown. Many people in the state education community said they thought substantially more than the roughly 1,000 students who opted out of taking the NJ ASK test last spring would decline to take the PARCC test.

In the last couple of months, as awareness of the test and concerns about it spread, a refuse-the-test movement took root and grew.

New Jersey is a particularly active example of a growing national opt-out movement that crosses the ideological spectrum and is forcing officialdom to respond, according to Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest) in Boston.

"It is new territory for education administrators and policy makers, and it is putting tremendous pressure on states," Schaeffer said.

In New Jersey, more than 200 school districts now have policies to deal with students who opt out of the tests, compared to almost none a few months ago, according to Save Our Schools New Jersey, a grassroots, pro-public-education group.

As in most states, New Jersey law doesn't provide for opting out. A law that would change that is one of the PARCC-limiting bills recently introduced in the Legislature.

Meanwhile, the New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, has been conducting its own anti-PARCC campaign with the release of a critical poll and a series of television and online ads.

PARCC's foes contend the test is developmentally and grade inappropriate and takes too much time and too many resources from classroom instruction and other programs. They say it is cumbersome and confusing.

Test supporters, however, say it will help New Jersey meet the goal of graduating students who are college and career ready, with an emphasis on creative thinking and problem-solving skills.

One of them is state Education Commissioner David Hespe, who considers PARCC "the best test we've ever had." He hopes for a good turnout for several reasons.

Parents whose children take the test will receive reports with a lot of specific information about their progress, according to Hespe. The test also will generate data that can be used to improve instruction, which state officials say the old tests couldn't do.

In addition, "PARCC is very important in helping identify and address achievement gaps," both across the state and at individual schools, Hespe said, noting that if a large number of students don't take the test, that could skew the results for their schools.

Hespe also said in an Oct. 30, 2014, memo to school administrators statewide that schools and their subgroups, such as special education, English-language learners, and low-income children, were required by federal law to have at least a 95 percent participation rate in assessments. If they don't, their districts could lose federal funding.

Research by FairTest, however, found the likelihood of funding loss to be close to nil.

So did research by Seton Hall University associate professor of education Christopher Tienken and Rutgers associate policy and planning professor Julia Sass Rubin, a Save Our Schools founder.

According to a recent article they wrote, New Jersey schools and groups within schools have fallen below 95 percent participation but none has been penalized financially by the federal government.

U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman Dorie Turner Nolt said the department had been letting the states police themselves on participation.

"The department has not had to withhold money over this requirement in recent years because states have either complied or have appropriately sanctioned schools or districts who assessed less than 95 percent of students," Nolt said.

Hespe said withholding federal funding was still a possible sanction.

"Now, will that happen? We don't know," he said. "It's not in our control."

Policies on how to handle opt-out students vary quite a bit, depending on district officials' interpretation of requirements and Education Department guidance. Some districts have been supportive of opt-out decisions and plan to provide alternative locations or activities for those students who won't take the test.

Others appear to be taking a harder line, including instituting "sit and stare" policies, requiring students to sit in the testing room and wait for their peers to finish the test.

Jennifer Small, a crossing guard from Riverton, said she informed officials at her son's school, the Burlington County Institute of Technology, that he would not take the PARCC test.

She said she was notified in writing that her son, a 14-year-old freshman with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, would have to sit quietly in the test room and would face punishment if he is disruptive.

Superintendent Christopher Manno said the school did not have a "sit and stare" policy. He said students who don't take the test can read quietly.

Despite her stated wishes, Small said she was told her son would be instructed to take the test and he would have to refuse - something that is being done at other schools, as well.

"I feel a huge sense of injustice," Small said. "He's a resilient kid, and he will be OK. But I don't think he should have to be."


rgiordano@phillynews.com

856-779-3893 @ritagiordano