As hundreds of thousands of New Jersey schoolchildren sit down for state testing over the course of the next month, NJ Spotlight came upon at least three families who are sitting this one out.
Particularly notable: They are teachers and administrators themselves, past and present. And each said that's part of the reason they've decided to opt out their kids, having seen how pervasive testing has become in schools where they’ve worked.
“Educators have to be first with this,” said Maryann Reilly, a Ringwood mother, education consultant, former school administrator in Newark, Hackensack , and most recently assistant superintendent in Morristown.
“If people on the inside aren’t doing this, how can we expect our neighbors to,” she said.
In her case, Reilly said it was a growing sense that enough was enough that led her and her husband -- a Franklin Lakes English teacher -- to keep their 13-year-old son at home for this week’s NJ Assessment of Skills and Knowledge, better known as NJ ASK.
Every student from Grades 3 to 8 goes through four days of NJ ASK over the course of the next month, being tested on language arts and math.
“He has taken it since third grade, and we just decided this year, it was enough,” Reilly said. “We don’t value the measure, and we don’t get anything useful from it.
“We’re hoping people will wake up and see it is just not appropriate anymore,” she said.
Will Richardson, a prominent consultant and blogger on technology and education and former teacher at Hunterdon Central High School, has long espoused that testing has gone overboard. He said it is not just judging kids on misguided notions of learning, but also schools and even teachers in ways never intended. And this year, his 12 year old son will also be opting out.
“The research shows us that it is just not a valid measure of what is happening in the classroom,” Richardson said. “We just felt it was time to take a stand “
Nationally or in New Jersey, there is no reliable estimate of the number of families who hold back their children from testing for philosophical and educational reasons. But with the help of the Internet, it is an idea that certainly has stirred the passions and garnered attention with a National Opt-Out Day in January and a range of websites and Facebook pages dedicated to the cause.
In New Jersey last year, about 1,800 out of the 600,000 students enrolled in the NJ ASK -- or roughly 0.3 percent -- were marked absent for at least one section. But the reasons aren’t tabulated, officials said -- whether it's a conscious decision, an illness, or even error.
When contacted for this story, state and local districts had little to say, not wanting to promote the idea too much.
A spokesman for the state Department of Education said there is no statewide protocol for sitting out the tests. Although the testing is required of schools, it is a local decision whether a student receives an excused or unexcused absence, said Justin Barra, the department’s communications director.
Both Reilly and Richardson said their children received excused absences.
The one exception is the state’s high school test, now given in 11th grade, which students must by law pass if they are to graduate. Otherwise, it’s more that the law doesn’t speak to it, rather than prohibits it.
“There is no provision in federal or state law in New Jersey for students to voluntarily not take the test,” Barra said in an email.
He and others maintained that the assessments are part of a child’s education, and that there could be consequences if enough children sat out. Under both federal and state laws, a school is required to have 95 percent of its students taking the assessments, a move that was taken to keep schools from purposefully excluding students who may not test well.
“This data is a crucial resource for all of us as we work to ensure that all of our students are on track to graduate from high school college- and career-ready,” Barra said.
And that's the problem for the parents who have decided to opt out: the tests have been misused to gauge students for their test-taking skills but not learning.
Reilly, a former literacy director in Newark and then assistant superintendent in Hackensack as well as Morristown, said it has clearly led to a narrowing of curriculum that is only harming students. She is now a consultant in coaching teachers, including in New York City.