PARCC Week, Day 1: Intro to Standardized Testing

As I sat down to write about my personal opinions about PARCC and standardized testing in general, I came to the realization that a single post might not be enough. Over the course of the next week, I’ll be posting about PARCC and some of the reasons it merits the attention of anyone connected to students – parents, teachers, and community members. This is the first entry of this series.

IMG_0021This week our local School Committee voted to change the Spring 2016 assessment tool from the previously approved (October 2015) Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) to Parternship for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC). The deed is done, but that doesn’t mean it has to stand forever.

As a third-grade and fourth-grade teacher for the last 9 years before I retired in June, I had quite a bit of experience with MCAS. My students were never part of the PARCC pilot, or try-out tests, but I have taken a good, long look at what PARCC releases on their website (parcc.org). I reviewed test items as part of my personal work as educator as well as when I was a part of the team re-writing math curriculum to align with Common Core Standards.

Preparing students who are barely 9 years old for hours-long testing involves teaching test taking strategies. This does not mean teaching to the test. It means basic skills such as teaching students to scan questions prior to reading a passage, reading the italicized introduction to a reading passage, highlighting using allowable tools, staying within boundaries of open response question/answer areas, erasing bubble sheets, and making only one answer choice, ensuring that the whole test has been answered and no items left skipped, reading test items and dealing with tricky and subtle changes in wording, and it means preparing to focus and concentrate for long periods of time. Some may think that those listed strategies should be assumed; I would remind you of that old saying: ” when you assume….”. None of this is second nature to a 9-year-old.

Each year that I administered MCAS, I kept a notecard inside one of my desk drawers. On that card, I noted some factors of a students’ life that might negatively impact test performance. Why? Because invariably when the results of testing were released, teachers are rightly asked to look closely at the results and make instructional decisions to improve.  And now, in a more toxic environment, those test scores can become part of an evaluation of my teaching.

I don’t think my instruction was perfect and there are/were plenty of standards on which I could have done a more effective job. My notes, however, contained items such as “no glasses, broken and not replaced”, “arrived 2 hours after test began” and “upset and crying due to fight at home”. This is the reality of teaching in schools where trauma is high. To disregard the impact of such things on a child tasked with performing on a one-shot high-stakes test is foolish.

I dislike and distrust most high stakes testing. My English Language Learners (ELLs) – some years that population made up 75% of the classroom – are smart and funny and wonderful learners who easily misunderstood some of the subtleties of test language.  They’ll make sense of these tests and learn to deal with them, of course, but it will take more than a few years. Yet the Commonwealth punishes them by designating their test scores “needs improvement” or “warning”. What must that do to a child’s psyche? My students were always more than a number to me, but the Commonwealth doesn’t see it that way.

So through the lense of someone who has been in the room during testing, who has witnessed extraordinary effort of students to try to show their best performance on a snap-shot of their learning, over the next several posts, I will try to explain what it is that makes me even more apprehensive about this new assessment, the PARCC tests.

Next topic: The Corporate Connection

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