5 Ccrappy things about the PARCC

Well friends, it's come to this. Barbara Byrd-Bennett has caved in to federal and state threats after she suggested CPS would administer the PARCC to 10% of schools. She knows it's not a good test. She knows schools aren't ready. But the heat was turned up too high, and the idea of losing one billion (honestly, what is with that number?) bucks seemed extreme.

I mean, even though James Meeks and Chris Koch signed a fancy-sounding letter on official stationery, I'm wondering if their threats are even legal. Withhold IDEA funding? Really, gentlemen?

Parents can play hardball right back, even if the mighty CPS cannot.

In fact they've already started. At Blaine Elementary, the PTA is encouraging, hoping for, planning a 100% opt out. And Nettlehorst's LSC took a formal stand against the PARCC. Byrne LSC and PTC are promoting a full opt-out/refusal for their school.

Why would they do that? Why would they care? Why should you care?

Is it all just a game--you can't tell us what to do, and we won't do it? 

Are opt-outers like little toddlers, feet planted, jaws clenched, who will not, will not, will not pick up the eight Jenga blocks as Mommy asked? Just a little thing, and they're brattily refusing to do it? Is that what this is?

Or is it, perhaps, that neurotic parents are causing their children needless worry over something that isn't a very big deal? Can't these parents just shut up and do what they're supposed to? I mean, we all took standardized tests when we were kids, right? So get over it! Little Boopsy would be fine if these parents would just shut up already.

Is that what's going on?

No. No it isn't. And here are five reasons why it is reasonable, just, and necessary for parents to say no to the PARCC assessments, and why you should think about it seriously as well.

1. Many CPS schools do not have the computer infrastructure in place to have every kid in the whole school take a test that takes 9 hours per person over 5 days. (Before you start ranting in your head about how lame CPS schools are for not having this infrastructure, consider that Florida schools had hundreds of thousands of computers fail Monday and throughout the week as they began their CCSS testing.) Some schools will therefore be administering this test on paper. With part online administration and part paper,  the results will be statistically suspect and unscientific due to inconsistencies among testing sites and methods of completing tests.

2. It doesn't really matter that the results will be unscientific and suspect because this year the PARCC is not the high stakes test for CPS. Like ISAT last spring, it is a pointless extra test for literally no reason. No teachers will be fired based on failure rates, not this year anyway. No schools whose kids struggle with standardized tests will be penalized or have their funding yanked because their kids struggled, unsurprisingly, yet again, with standardized tests. The NWEA MAP is still the high stakes test for CPS this year.

3. Speaking of the MAP, it overlaps with the second session of the PARCC. What's that, you say? You didn't know PARCC is given twice between now and the end of the year? Oh, yes. March and May, several weeks each time, 9 hours per kid per session. Let's just take a quick peek at the rest of the school year to see what else is ahead--a veritable standardized-test-o-rama: 3 weeks of PARCC, 3 weeks of MAP, then another 3 weeks of PARCC. Also 3 weeks of REACH Performance Task testing thrown in at the same time. And for the younger set, the spring sessions of the 3x/year TRC, DIBELS, mClass Math, and IDEL. And if you're in high school, also the ACT, the SAT, the AP and IB exams.

You do realize we covered the testing schedule for just three months, right? I haven't said anything at all about September through February, have I? Guess what! Those months have the fall and/or winter administrations of all those same tests. Are you beginning to see that students in CPS spend significant amounts of time taking one standardized test after another? Why is this?

Do you wonder, person who wishes parents would shut up about refusing "the" test? Do you see that it is not how it was when you were a kid and you had one big standardized test per year? Can you understand that opting out of this latest demand for "accountability" is not whining but is itself a demand for accountability?

How can it possibly take this much testing to demonstrate that our students are learning? When do our kids actually get to learn, and when do our teachers get to teach?

4. But maybe, you say to yourself, the PARCC is really, finally, a good test. Everyone whines about this test for the sole reason that their kids are struggling for the first time in their lives. No more coddling! Right? I hear it every day. The PARCC says of itself that it engages critical thinking and compels children to think higher and harder. Together with the Common Core State Standards on which it is based, they're supposed to be so good at this that they will close the achievement gap. They are the key, we hear over and over, to solving the civil rights issue of our time.

Setting aside the improbable notion that harder testing makes smarter kids, let's examine the claims briefly. I'll give you the link to the practice PARCC tests so you can see for your very own self what qualifies as "higher" thinking these days.

I find the ELA tests boring, and tricky, and nerve-end deadening. Questions about reading selections seem to focus on absolutely minor gradations of meaning, not on plot or large themes of a story. Nothing in my 15 years of PhD work (in historical theology, and at one point I taught myself late medieval Dutch) invoked such a sense of minutia and drudgery. (Really.) Possible answers vary by shade, and for many questions, more than one is possible. In some cases valid arguments can be made for several choices--I've seen it happen myself in a group of adults arguing over a 3rd grade question about Poppleton the Pig. In that instance, not only were there numerous possible answers (I held forth vociferously for the wrong one), but also one question involved the accompanying illustration, and students were asked about the meaning of the expression on a pig's face. I am about 98% certain that the illustrator of this story never intended for children to be judged on their response to her hand-drawn animals' facial expressions.

The Lexile level of the reading selections is about two years above grade level for every year--something done intentionally to create a high failure rate. But don't worry! The test designers have our kids' best interests in mind--they don't want these tests to be soft; only real rigor will make our kids smarter.

The math tests are geared several years ahead of current grade level expectations and, I would argue, ahead of what is developmentally appropriate. Questions are frequently tricky with no discernible pedagogical purpose. The computer interface is confusing and instructions are vague and multivalent--in one box you drag and drop equations as well as write explanations of your work. The CCSS curriculum it is testing has not even been fully taught in CPS. These tests are not smarter, they're trickier. They are designed for an approximate 70% failure rate

5. PARCC takes a new approach to accommodations for students with special needs. Some are saying PARCC does not honor IEP accommodations, or it only honors some. It appears to be different from one state to the next and families and districts are experiencing a lot of confusion. But what can be discerned from their website is that the PARCC has been designed to be accessible, therefore "most students" will be able to access the test. What this means is that "a relatively small number of students will require additional accessibility features for their particular needs" (PARCC Accessibility Manual, p. 18)--that is to say, the accommodations a child might typically have will be neither needed nor offered.  Some have understood this to mean that the testing accommodations portion of IEPs are suspended for the duration of the test.

The website insists that for the video portion of the ELA tests, captions can be accessed, although I did not see that capacity when I took a practice test. Furthermore, as if a 70 to 75% failure rate is not high enough, for special ed students the predicted failure rate is 9 out of 10. Why would anyone subject their child to this? What meaning can it possibly have, or in what way is it going to help such a child? PARCC is not a fair assessment for students with special needs, and it seems to stand above federal IEP law. 

Five reasons to question PARCC if not refuse it outright. We are obliged to ask ourselves if this test, and the curriculum it imposes, are the best we can do for our children. At a time when schools subsist on starvation budgets, having less to spend on actual teachers and physical school structures, is this test, its test prep materials, and the enormous time sink it represents the best way to direct our dollars?

Pearson, the company who created and operates PARCC and now exercises almost comprehensive control over American public education, is bringing in untold hundreds of millions on this thing, receiving much of it from the federal government but also getting fat profits from states and school districts such as CPS. Interestingly, to score the PARCC--such an innovative and important test upon which the future success of American education stands--Pearson hires folks by means of Craigslist and pays them $11/hour.

If you want a better Chicago Public Schools system please like my Facebook page and join me there for more discussion. You can also follow me on twitter @foolforcps.

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