PARCC Standardized Test Divides Evanston – Part I

It doesn’t take much to stir up a controversy in Evanston. At a Strategic Planning Focus Group meeting in November for Evanston/Skokie District 65, there were so many constituencies represented that it was impossible to reach consensus on any issue, including the Partnership in Assessment and Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test to be given this spring. In the space of 90 minutes, there were as many opinions as there we people in attendance. Inevitably, someone was angry and someone was crying. I’ve lived in this wonderful community for over 40 years, so no surprises there.

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  • Some parents argued for a more challenging curriculum in our schools and felt the PARCC would makes the schools and teachers accountable.
  • Some represented arts organizations that felt they were being squeezed out by the demands of PARCC and the Common Core curriculum.
  • Some advocated for more resources to be spent on sports to keep children healthy.
  • Some worried teachers were unable to differentiate their instruction to match the needs and learning style of every child.
  • Some fretted that children with special needs were not well served, and others were concerned about gifted education.
  • Some lamented that there was no time for social-emotional learning and advocated for restorative justice and peace circles.
  • Some pointed out that the achievement gap between Caucasian children and children of color still loomed large.

What I took from the meeting was that there was a group of parents who were highly committed to seeking a waiver from the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) to postpone the PARCC tests for a year. The group, spearheaded by Saul Lieberman, had met the previous week with State Senators Heather Steans and Danial Biss, State Representatives Robyn Gabel and Laura Fine, Leslie Combs (District Director for Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky), District 65 School Board member Omar Brown, District 202 School Board Member Jonathan Baum, the director of Raise Your Hands Illinois, Wendy Katten, and parents from Evanston and Rogers Park.  I attended a second meeting that included State Senator Daniel Biss, State Representative Laura Fine, District 65 School Board member Claudia Garrison, Evanston Township High School (ETHS) Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, Pete Bavis, a representative from the Chicago Public Schools, and several Evanston parents and community members.

Bavis made a compelling case (PARCC Implementation Concerns). Beyond the concerns about high school students having to also take ACT and AP exams at the same time (exams that count for something in terms of college acceptance and placement), he made the following important points:

1. Students, even in elementary school, will have to spend more time taking the PARCC tests than lawyers who sit for the Bar Exam.

2. Information from the ISBE about the PARCC has not been timely. As of late November, test manuals for administrators had not been released and teachers had not been trained.

3. The ISBE is also unclear about how to handle students who opt out of the exam.

4. The PARCC has hidden costs for schools, including technology and staffing needed to administer it.

5. Students taking PARCC this year are basically serving as guinea pigs for Pearson, the for-profit testing company that owns the test. PARCC is not a norm-referenced test, so scores will not be particularly meaningful.

Additional concerns about this test voiced at the meeting included:

1. Our schools have not even fully implemented Common Core standards, so they are not ready.

2. Accommodations for English Language Learners and Special Education Students are still being developed and there is concern that appropriate ones will not be ready.

3. The test itself is of questionable quality and reliability and needs revision before its widespread use.

4. The computer technologies required for the test is not in place in many schools, nor are the younger children able to do some of the required computer operations.

5. The PARCC will disrupt learning due to having to teach to the test and take a chunk out of instructional time to administer it.

Even in Evanston, it seems we should be able to come to consensus on the PARCC issue. If you are not convinced, listen to Pete Bavis’s comments in the video embedded in the Washington Post Answer Sheet blog by Valerie Strauss, A damning account of one state’s Common Core testing initiative.

Still not convinced? Well, check out this DEA-High Stakes Standardized Testing position paper by The Delran Education Association.

Among the concerns this New Jersey affiliate of the National Education Association, our country’s largest teachers’ union, raises are:

1. Standardized tests are used primarily to rate students, teachers, and schools rather than to give feedback about student learning that can help parents and teachers of individual children maximize their learning potential.

2. These tests scores are greatly influenced by factors outside of school and primarily reflect a family’s income.

3. Educators are forced to teach to the test rather than to provide meaningful teaching and learning.

4. Kids are more than a test score, especially children with different learning styles.

5. Taxpayers end up burdened with the cost of the unfunded mandates like Common Core and PARCC.

6. Standardized testing and teaching kids to pass these takes eliminate joy, creativity, curiosity, and risk-taking from the educational lives of children.

7. Children with special needs and English language learners are at a huge disadvantage because there are not appropriate adaptations.

8. If anything, these tests have widened the achievement gap between white children and children of color, as well as wealthy children and children living in poverty.

9. Many children are highly anxious and stressed about taking these tests.

10. Our youngest children no longer receive developmentally appropriate, play-based learning environments.

11. Using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers is inaccurate, unfair, and damaging to the profession.

OK Evanston people. Now are you ready as a community to stand with our high school and request a waiver? Well, that’s so not the end of this story. This next part will make your head spin.

To be continued…

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