Standardized Testing: March Madness Returns to our Schools

March madness is almost upon us. I’m not talking about the basketball tournament, but rather the intense game of high stakes standardized testing played in our schools.

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Illinois remains just one of seven states, along with Washington, D.C., still participating in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) testing consortium. But other states have simply substituted different tests for this flawed one, and continue to push kids to score well so it supposedly reflects well on their schools and teachers.

In Indiana, for example, my third grade granddaughter will be taking the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress (ISTEP) in language arts and mathematics. She will also take a reading skills test called the IREAD-3, which she must pass or she will receive summer school “remediation” and have to take it again. Failure a second time can mean retention in third grade. Talk about high stakes. My granddaughter is an avid reader, but she is very nervous about these consequences. She is also anxious about the math portion of the test because she has to take it on a computer, which she says is much harder for her than doing it on paper.

To ensure she does well and especially to boost the school’s reputation and rating, she and her classmates have been preparing all year to take these tests. Countless hours of classroom time have been devoted to test prep, complete with “Quiet in the Halls” signage. And it is suggested that she and her classmates spend an hour a week practicing at home. This is in addition to her already heavy homework load. The app DreamBox, which features the photo of a child captioned, “I’m going to college,” can be downloaded to a personal computer or tablet. I guess her school assumes every family has one of these devises and encourages all of the children to cram as much as possible. Making matters worse, an email that came home recently announcing a classmate had already completed 25 hours of home practice was pretty discouraging for my granddaughter. Between her regular homework and swim team, there is no way she can approach that number of hours of home prep. OMG! She’s nine-years-old but to her this high stakes testing feels like taking the SAT. If she doesn’t do well, she worries her academic future will be ruined.

In Illinois, a state without a budget or money for the educational needs of its students, there will be soon be another round of PARCC testing, most of it also via computer. According to an article in Education Week, “In December, the Illinois state board of education found that 43 percent of students there who took the PARCC English/language arts exam on paper scored proficient or above, compared with 36 percent of students who took the exam online.” Those scores are both pretty dismal, and there is little interest in determining why the computer scores were so much lower. The plan for this year is simply to rinse and repeat.

The folks at PARCC have no desire to explain this phenomenon of poorer scores using computers or anything else about the validity of their so-called national test, now being given by so few states. Pearson, the for-profit company that manufactures PARCC and all materials associated with the test, places the responsibility for figuring out why using the computer version results in such low scores in the hands of the states.  And the State of Illinois is gridlocked by the ongoing budget crisis, so no one really cares about this issue. Despite the obvious flaws in PARCC, in our state the results are still regarded as being important for “accountability.”

In fact nothing has been done here to improve the computer technology required for the test that failed in many schools last year. Our younger children are still unable to do some of the required computer operations. And preparing for PARCC still disrupts learning, forcing educators to teach to the test and taking a chunk out of instructional time to administer it.

A bill to outline a process for parents to opt their children out of taking PARCC never passed in our State Legislature. Once again, kids who don’t speak English and children with special needs are expected to refuse to take the test when their teacher presents it. And it is still unclear how schools should handle students who opt themselves out of the exam. Without guidelines from the state, students at some schools may again be forced to “sit and stare” for hours while their classmates take the exam.

And then there are the scores from last year's PARCC. According to the Chicago Tribune, December 11, 2015, even at traditionally high scoring schools (think New Trier), fewer than half the test takers passed the math portion. At hundreds of schools, fewer than 10 percent passed. At some schools, not one student passed math or language arts. Add to these dismal results the fact that thousands of children opted out of taking the test, and combine that with the problems with taking the PARCC on a computer. What did we learn from all of the time and money poured into PARCC last year? Nothing. What a waste of instructional time and money.

In cash-strapped Illinois, is another round of PARCC testing really the best use of our limited resources?  Does it make sense in Indiana to subject third graders to such intense pressure and test preparation at the expense of true learning? It’s time for the madness to end. Let’s park the PARCC and all other high stakes standardized testing.

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