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9-10-15 Student Testing Guidances from DOE...Chronic Absenteeism an Issue for Schools

NJ Spotlight – New Testing Policies Slowly Take Shape in Slew of Education Department Memos…Disgruntled families take department to court, claiming it did not follow proper procedure for setting and vetting policy

John Mooney | September 10, 2015

Seeking to serve political as well as educational ends, the Christie administration yesterday sent a flurry of back-to-school memos to districts, clarifying how student testing will work this year for those who sit for the exams -- and those who don’t.

For starters, the administration released the long-promised guidance on how districts are to deal with students who refuse to take the tests, a sizable but still-undisclosed number in last spring’s launch of the online PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) exams.

The instructions were the product of a compromise with Democratic legislative leaders last spring, whose members in the throes of the opt-out movement threatened to move legislation that could have suspended the use of the new tests altogether.

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The new guidance is not strongly prescriptive. For example, it said districts should provide an alternative setting for students refusing the tests and should not require them to sit still through the testing, in what is dubbed a “sit and stare” policy.

“Legislators asked us to put it out at the beginning of the school year, and that’s what we’re doing,” said state Education Commissioner David Hespe yesterday. “It’s heavy on communication, and how districts are to communicate with their communities and parents.”

In addition, the administration yesterday also sought to assuage concerns about the use of the new testing as part of the state’s high school graduation requirements.

In a separate memo sent to districts, Hespe said that for the incoming class of freshmen -- the Class of 2019 -- the state would continue for another year its current policy of using PARCC as only one possible gateway to meet the graduation requirement.

Others include minimum scores on the SAT or ACT college entrance exams or other alternative measures, as well as a one-to-one appeals process.

That policy has been subject of intense debate, now moving to the courts. A group of families last week filed a lawsuit, TB et al v. NJ Department of Education, that contends the state is dictating the requirements without going through the statutory public process and also failing to adequately notify schools and families of what is required of them.

Hespe said in an interview that with the PARCC testing new to the state and the scores still not released, it was prudent to hold off for at least another year from making the tests a prime graduation requirement. A state commission looking at student testing statewide is also soon to release its recommendations.

“Since we don’t have the PARCC scores yet and the assessment commission is still out there, we thought we shouldn’t get ahead of either of those,” he said.

Nonetheless, the move hardly calmed the critics who said the state had again failed to go through the regulatory process that is required, preventing public input and the full vetting of the state’s practices.

“You can’t do this by memo,” said Jessica Levin, an attorney with the Education Law Center, the advocacy group that is representing the families in the complaint. “Just issuing a memo on a broad policy like this doesn’t comply with the law.”

The American Civil Liberties Union New Jersey is also representing the families.

Levin said it is a matter of setting consistent practices for districts that prevent the kind of mixed messages that students and families say they have been receiving.

“The required regulatory process provides for notice and an opportunity for the public to respond to the substantive issues raised by the proposed policies,” she said in a subsequent email. “It’s a matter of fairness to families and students and adherence to the law.”

The new guidance also provides little detail on how the appeals process would work for those who miss the cut-off and whether it would be tied to PARCC or other assessments.

In yet one more memo, the state added a new twist to the high-school testing issue, saying it would allow student to be exempt from the 11th grade language-arts PARCC if they met minimum scores on corresponding SATs or ACTs or participate in the corresponding AP tests. Again, there was little guidance yet to what those minimums would be.

“We’re going to take every opportunity to cut down on testing time, and this was one opportunity to do that,” Hespe said.

The exemption would only apply to 11th grade language arts, and not the new math tests or the other reading and writing tests in ninth and 10th grades


Press of Atlantic City - Report reveals chronic absenteeism in local schools… At least 125,000 children in New Jersey missed 18 or more days of school in 2013-14 according to a report issued today by Advocates for Children of New Jersey.


Posted: Thursday, September 10, 2015 12:15 am  By DIANE D'AMICO, Staff Writer The Press of Atlantic City

At least 125,000 children in New Jersey missed 18 or more days of school in 2013-14 according to a report issued today by Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

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That number represents about 10 percent of all children and has an impact on state test scores and high school graduation rates, according to the report titled “Showing Up Matters.”

“You have to be in school to learn,” said ACNJ executive director Cecilia Zalkind. “Excessive absence in ninth grade is a more accurate predictor of dropout rates than test scores are.”

The report, funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, uses state Department of Education data. It does not include all of Newark, the largest school district in the state, because not all data was available.

Statewide, the report found 177 public and charter school districts in the state in which more than 10 percent of students were chronically absent, which meant missing at least 18 days, or 10 percent of the school year.

The data shows that chronic absenteeism is high in kindergarten, reduces through elementary school, then increases again in high school, with 11th and 12th grade having the largest number of students chronically absent.

The median number of days absent by chronically absent students was 23, out of 180 days in the school year.

The report also found that chronically absent students were more likely to be economically disadvantaged, homeless, or have a disability. Black and Hispanic students also made up more than half of all chronically absent students, but only 40 percent of all students.

ACNJ senior analyst Cynthia Rice said most districts monitor their average daily attendance, and may not notice how many of the same students are chronically absent.

“It’s a bigger problem than we realize,” she said.

The state Department of Education has added chronic absenteeism as a College and Career Readiness indicator on the new School Performance Reports for elementary and middle schools, and many districts have responded to the results.

Local district officials note that the absentee rate includes illness and excused absences, so a large number of students with chronic illnesses can influence the absentee rate.

Shore districts also face the issue of families who work through the summer then take vacations during the school year.

Port Republic has just 124 students, so it took only 15 children with chronic absenteeism to exceed the 10 percent total rate. Interim superintendent Joetta Surace there there were a few students with severe medical issues that year. but they also have created incentive programs to stress the importance of daily attendance.

Retired Woodbine superintendent Lynda Anderson-Towns said as a small, rural district with no busing, weather plays a huge role in attendance. She got a grant to buy rain slickers for children. The district also used materials from the national group Attendance Works to promote good attendance and classes can get awards for perfect attendance.

State data show the chronic absentee rate in Woodbine dropped from 14 percent in 2011-12 to one percent in 2012-13, then bumped up to 8 percent in 2013-14.

“A few days of bad weather can make a huge difference,” Anderson-Towns said. “You just have to stay with the message.”

Parents also play a major role, and school officials said school attendance habits should start young. Districts with preschool say parents sometimes don’t take attendance as seriously since preschool is not required. Even kindergarten can be a challenge.

Wildwood superintendent J. Kenyon Kummings said since the state only mandates school for children ages 6 to 16 it can be difficult to enforce attendance for preschool, kindergarten, and high school juniors and seniors.

“We try to be partners with parents, but we can and have gone to court for truancy for ages 6 to 16,” he said.

He said Wildwood is also a walking district, and local police, fire and school officials have gone out in bad weather to pick up students.

Districts with a lot of student mobility can also have higher absentee rates since students may miss weeks of school between leaving one district and enrolling in the next. Kummings said families from Mexico or Puerto Rico may return home for extended periods.

District officials in Ocean City, Margate, Middle Township, Little Egg Harbor, Millville and Vineland all said they have put programs in place that include both early contact with parents and incentives for students to attend every day.

“Our goal is to assist parents, not punish them but in certain circumstances we take parents to court for truancy,” Middle Township superintendent David Salvo said. Last year the district charged about 20 families with truancy.

Ocean City superintendent Kathleen Taylor said raising awareness and monitoring absenteeism more closely dramatically improved attendance rates, which had been as high as 30 percent at the Intermediate school, but was reduced to 9 percent in 2013-14.

Contact: 609-272-7241  DDamico@pressofac.com  Twitter @ACPressDamico