Response to the NJ PTA President

By Mel Katz.  Mel Katz’s blog is called The Education Activist: From Student to Teacher.  She is an Urban Elementary Education and Women’s and Gender Studies double major at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ).

Response to the New Jersey PTA/New Jersey PTA President re: State Board of Education Testimony

Wednesday, January 7th was the monthly State Board of Education meeting, and about 100 parents, teachers, and students attended to give testimony during the open-topic session. Most spoke on the dangers of PARCC and high-stakes testing, but one testimony stood out to me – that of the New Jersey PTA president, Debbie Tyrrell. About halfway through typing responses to her points, I realized this got really long (stick with me on the length of this one), so I’ve focused on breaking down her main points and addressing some of the facts left out of her testimony. That in bold is the original statement (her full testimony can be read here from the Department of Education Website) and what follows are my responses, all of which are backed up with articles/evidence.

“We are also cautiously hopeful that the new PARCC tests will be a fair assessment against the standards and give parents and teachers the information that they need to help their children succeed.”

Ok… take a breather, Mel, take a breather. First of all, standardized tests are unfair to many students for a slew of reasons. FairTest chronicled some of those reasons here:
1) High-stakes tests are unfair to many students.
Some students simply do not test well. Many students are affected by test anxiety or do not show their learning well on a standardized test, resulting in inaccurately lower scores.
Many students do not have a fair opportunity to learn the material on the test because they attend poorly-funded schools with large class sizes, too many teachers without subject area certification, and inadequate books, libraries, laboratories, computers and other facilities. These students are usually from low-income families, and many also suffer problems with housing, nutrition or health care. High-stakes tests punish them for things they cannot control.
Students with learning disabilities, whose first language is not English, or who attend vocational schools fail high-stakes tests far more frequently than do mainstream students.
Some people say that it is unfair to students to graduate them if they have not been adequately educated. But if students do not have access to an adequate and equitable education, they end up being held accountable while the system is not. States must take responsibility and be held accountable for providing a strong educational opportunity for all.
Classroom surveys show most teachers do not find scores from standardized tests scores very useful. The tests do not help a teacher understand what to do next in working with a student because they do not indicate how the student learns or thinks. Nor do they measure much of what students should learn. Good evaluation provides useful information to teachers.
See, it’s kind of hard to say it will “give parents and teachers the information that they need to help children succeed” when the teachers (and parents, for the matter) don’t even see the tests. When there is authentic, teacher created assessments, the story is different: teachers not only see the tests (well, duh, they make the tests), but this allows for them to see where students succeeded, where students are performing well, and where students may need more assistance in. If my whole class gets #3 on my test wrong, then that’s a heads up to me, as the teacher, to know that hey, maybe I didn’t cover that subject as well as I should have. Now I can go back, tailor my instruction moving forward to make sure I’m covering the previous topics students need more help on, and therefore creating a stronger foundational understanding for them when moving forward onto the next topic.

The part of the statement that says “give parents… the information that they need to help children succeed” reminds me of when David Hespe, the New Jersey Commissioner of Education, stated (paraphrasing) that he hopes the data from PARCC will be useful in parenting. Yes, please, I need detailed data reports on how dinner tasted (with a breakdown of each item on the plate) – otherwise my children may never be college and career ready! I need more detailed data for folding laundry perfectly according to the standards – otherwise my children may never be college and career ready! I need even MORE detailed data on *any* of the discussions I have with my children – here is where I would really appreciate the use of a rubric so I can look back on where I need improvement – otherwise my children may never be college and career ready! How is my content knowledge on “parenting issues” such as *the talk,* speaking about safety, drugs, and just the casual conversations of “how was school today?” How is my professionalism rating in dealing with my child?

“In states that are further along in their implementation of the standards and assessments we’ve seen year-over-year improvement in test scores which gives us a reason for optimism.”

WOAHHHH there… now let’s take a minute a slow the train. Stop the bus. Let me out of the car. In all honesty, I had to read this statement maybe five or six times before it really got into my head. I’m still kind of staring at it in disbelief. Let’s get back on the train, on the bus, and into the car, and take a short ride over to New York.

Anthony Cody wrote one of the best summaries ever in his article “Common Core Standards: 10 Colossal Errors” (which I reference all the time, and everyone should read over and over). In that article, he discusses the results of the first round of Pearson-aligned testing in New York:

Given that we have attached all sorts of consequences to these tests, this could have disastrous consequences for students and teachers. Only 31 percent of students who took Common Core aligned tests in New York last spring were rated proficient.  On the English Language Arts test, about 16 percent of African American students were proficient, five percent of students with disabilities, and 3% of English Learners. Last week, the state of North Carolina announced a similar drop in proficiency rates.  Thus we have a system that, in the name of “rigor,” will deepen  the achievement gaps, and condemn more students and schools as failures.
Because of the “rigor,” many students—as many as 30 percent—will not get a high school diploma. What will our society do with the large numbers of students who were unable to meet the Common Core Standards? Will we have a generation of hoboes and unemployables? Many of these young people might find trades and jobs that suit them, but they may never be interviewed due to their lack of a diploma. This repeats and expands on the error made with high school exit exams, which have been found to significantly increase levels of incarceration  among the students who do not pass them—while offering no real educational benefits.
Fewer than a third of students in public schools passed the new tests, officials reported. And, in a twist that could roil education policy, some highly touted charter schools flopped particularly badly.

Other states are expected to face similar reckonings next year and in 2015, as they roll out new tests aligned to Common Core. Already, Kentucky has reported high failure rates on its Common Core tests.

Why would policymakers create tests that are designed to mark as failures two out of every three children?  For the second year in a row, that is the question that New York parents are asking. The 2014 New York State Common Core test scores were recently released, and there was minimal improvement in student performance. Proficiency or “passing” rates went up 0.1 in English Language Arts (ELA) and 4.6 percentage points in math,despite the rollout of the $28 million, taxpayer funded curriculum modules, and greater familiarity with the tests. Proficiency rates continued to be horrendous for students who are English Language Learners—only 11 percent “passed” math, and 3 percent “passed” the English Language Arts tests. Results were equally dismal for special education students, whose “passing” rates were 9 percent in math and 5 percent in ELA.

Whether there are modest increases or decreases in scores, however, is inconsequential. Whether or not these tests are appropriate and fair evaluations of student learning is far more important. High-stakes tests, despite denials, always have and always will drive instruction. That is why bad tests based on inappropriate standards matter.

So, it is really misleading to say “we’ve seen year-over-year improvement in test scores which gives us a reason for optimism” when all else suggests otherwise.

“High standards and fair assessments ensure that every child gets the opportunity of a high-quality education system that prepares them for college and career.”

Ok, so let’s just ignore that forever elephant in the room *poverty* that no one in the “reformy” world wants to talk about, because high standards and fair assessments are clearly the answer to *solving poverty.* HOW DID NO ONE COME UP WITH THIS IDEA BEFORE?!?!?

I’m sure that high standards and fair assessments are the answer to the students and teachers who go to school in Camden with no heat in their buildings. Stephen Danley reported on his blog, Local Knowledge Blog, “Last night I received this comment from a teacher at Camden High: I teach at Camden High and spent the entire day in a building without heat. This is not unusual. We wear our coats and are advised to wear “thermals.” When a cold snap hits, it is brutal.” Well, why don’t you just wrap those kids and teachers in some high standards and quality assessments to keep them warm?

We must ask ourselves (and this bold statement here are my words): Is every child really getting the opportunity of a high-quality education system that prepares them for college and career when we, as a society, are ignoring the inequities that only plague our schools and our students? And are we really going to say that high standards and fair assessments are the answer to ensuring this “opportunity?” I am personally outraged at the original statement that “high standards and fair assessments” – and ONLY the mention of those two factors – “ensure that every child gets the opportunity of a high-quality education system that prepares them for college and career.”

Let’s look even further. Because of the high-stakes nature of these tests, teachers are being forced to “teach to the test.”

3) High-stakes testing produces teaching to the test.
The higher the stakes, the more schools focus instruction on the tests. As a result, what is not tested often is not taught. Whole subjects may be dropped; e.g., science, social studies, art or physical education may be eliminated if only language arts and math are tested. Important topics or skills that cannot be tested with paper-and-pencil tests – such as writing research papers or conducting laboratory experiments – are not taught.
Instruction starts to look like the tests. For example, reading is reduced to short passages followed by multiple-choice questions, a kind of “reading” that does not exist in the real world. Writing becomes the “five-paragraph essay” that is useless except on standardized tests.
Narrowing of curriculum and instruction happens most to low-income students. In schools serving wealthier areas, teachers and parents make sure most students gain the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in college and life. Too often, poor kids in under-funded schools get little more than test coaching that does not adequately prepare them for further learning. In some schools, the library budget is spent on test prep materials, and professional development is reduced to training teachers to be better test coaches. All this further limits educational opportunities for low-income children.
These tests are forcing our teachers to teach to the tests – they don’t want their students to fail, and their own evaluations are tied to these test scores – and I for one do not think that is “fair.” Many students do not have that “fair” opportunity to learn the material on the test because, as FairTest writes (which I want to emphasize again), “they attend poorly-funded schools with large class sizes, too many teachers without subject area certification, and inadequate books, libraries, laboratories, computers and other facilities. These students are usually from low-income families, and many also suffer problems with housing, nutrition or health care. High-stakes tests punish them for things they cannot control.”
“The skills that PARCC will assess are also the critical thinking skills that today’s employers demand… PARCC challenges students to apply what they are learning in the classroom so teachers can focus on building these kinds of skills, teaching them how to think, not what to think.”

PARCC sure does challenge students, but it doesn’t challenge them apply any real knowledge. PARCC does challenge students with difficult questions, strangely worded responses, new technology that requires our youngest students to manipulate words and equations they’ve never done before. Ask any of the parents who have attended one of the “Take the PARCC” events happening around the state, and they will echo the same. Listen to this video from Delran’s “Take the PARCC” event.

As far as those “critical thinking skills…” This is one of my favorite arguments because I chuckle to myself every time someone throws out “the Common Core and PARCC make students think critically.” This argument is phrased in a way that suggests no one ever taught/did any sort of critical thinking. So yes, if you are any of the millions of people who graduated before the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and PARCC tests, you clearly have no ability to think critically. How are we ever going to make advances in society when you’ve all been failures up to this point?

I will once again reference FairTest for a hint into their reasoning on this issue:

Are standardized tests fair and helpful evaluation tools?
Not really. On standardized exams, all test takers answer the same questions under the same conditions, usually in multiple-choice format. Such tests reward quick answers to superficial questions. They do not measure the ability to think deeply or creatively in any field. Their use encourages a narrowed curriculum, outdated methods of instruction, and harmful practices such as grade retention and tracking.
“It’s no surprise that kids don’t like tests, not just PARCC, any tests – the anticipation, the self-doubt, the margin for error. Transitioning to a new test will be challenging, but as parents, we need to not breed fear in our children by being fearful ourselves in the face of uncertainty. Instead I see this transition to PARCC as an opportunity to better support my child.”

Transition and change are a part of life. But transition and change under the pressure of high-stakes is not how it should be done. I am personally against the Common Core State Standards and PARCC (no secret there), but the least we could have done while implementing these changes is have no high-stakes attachment during the transition process. To the point about fear: no parent who is arguing against this is giving into fear or breeding fear in their children – in reality, they are doing the exact opposite. Parents are taking a stance against these reforms that they know will only harm their children and are fighting to protect their kids and their education. There is nothing fearful in that – that is heroic. And those same parents are setting the best examples for their children by showing them you stand up for what you believe in, you fight for what you believe in, and you never let anyone tell you otherwise. That is why there will be a refusal movement in New Jersey – because those heroic parents aren’t giving into any “fear” of change; they are fighting for change they believe in.

“I was pleasantly surprised when the principal has two students sit with each parent and help them work through the problems that were presented. The students easily handled the computer and worked through the answers. When asked how they felt about PARCC, both sets of students said they liked having the tests computerized, feeling it was more user-friendly.”

Of course there are going to be some students who like using the computers, but there is a whole other side to this conversation. Maybe some kids are “great with computers” – there will always be some who excel with certain changes but there are a lot of students – like in our more urban districts – who will first be exposed to extensive time on a computer to take the PARCC test. Some don’t have computers at home and don’t have the exposure to technology that students in more affluent districts do, and therefore lack that “technology fluency” that I think many are too quick to assume that *all* students have. Computers or computer labs in schools and in the school libraries are now dedicated to testing and taken away from students. Rather than getting to learn useful technology skills, many kids – who don’t get to regularly use computers – are solely focused on test prep like learning how to drag and drop to understand the interface of the PARCC test. And that’s not even discussing the issues around students with disabilities. Again, I just think many are too quick to assume technology fluency. If the students are struggling with the computers/whatever technology the individual district has chosen to use, then the actual performance on the test is compromised in that students aren’t focused on the questions themselves but how to input the answers/navigate the system. I am lucky to be surrounded by tons of technology and I struggled with the layout of the practice PARCC exam – parents felt the same. Watch the video from Delran’s Take the PARCC and listen to those parents speak. The revolution against high-stakes standardized testing such as PARCC is in the hands of the parents. Take hold of what you think is best for your child, their peers, their schools, and their education.

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