PARCC Standardized Test Divides Evanston – Part II

Back in 1969 when I was teaching high school English, a colleague questioned how I gave a student an “A.” She noted that his standardized test score indicated he was at best a “B” student. I was shocked to learn that those numbers next to the names on my class roster were scores on some kind of IQ test given back then. Even more shocking was the fact that those scores guided some teachers when evaluating students.

Well, it was still the 1960’s, we were still fighting the Viet Nam War, and there was no way I was going to let such an establishment idea stand without a fight. So I told the teacher he had earned the grade through hard work, dedication, and original thinking. That student went on to become a doctor. Thankfully, his score on a test didn’t determine his fate. I worry that there would be a different outcome for him today.

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Alfie Kohn, a long-time opponent of excessive testing, has written many articles over the past 15 years that are sadly still relevant today. His book The Case Against Standardized Testing is well worth reading. Kohn reminds us,

“There’s a difference between using [tests] to figure out who needs help — or, for more thoughtful teachers, what aspects of their own instruction may have been ineffective…[Standardized tests] assess the intellectual proficiencies that matter least, however — they also have the potential to alter students’ goals and the way they approach learning. The more you’re led to focus on what you’re going to have to know for a test, the less likely you are to plunge into a story or engage fully with the design of a project or experiment. And intellectual immersion can be all but smothered if those tests are given, or even talked about, frequently. Learning in order to pass a test is qualitatively different from learning for its own sake.”

Hopefully, you agree that spending the rest of this school year preparing for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test (PARCC) this spring is a bad idea. Hopefully, you are convinced we should get a waiver to postpone the test for a year. Well, here are the facts about getting that waiver. It’s enough to make your head spin:

1. To receive Title I funds under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), our state has to test kids in grades 3-8 annually. Additionally, we were supposed to show that 100% of our children met expectations on the 2014 tests. Illinois was granted a waiver to the requirement of 100% grade level proficiency (every child, every school) this year, but still is required to test all students in grades 3-8.

2. To receive Title I Race to the Top (RTTT) funds, Illinois had to agree to give Common Core aligned tests. Initially, we chose PARCC, along with 25 other states, and 31 states joined Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC).  I know – that doesn’t add up. But don’t worry about that because the numbers have already changed.

3. Now only 13 states and DC belong to the PARCC group and 17 states belong to SBAC. So if we count DC and Puerto Rico, 22 are not using either. Of the 13 states in the PARCC consortium, only 9 and DC are likely to give the test this year. Illinois is one of the nine.

4. For some reason, some states do not have to use all of the PARCC or SBAC assessments across the board for all grades.

5. Some states have laws or agreements that permit opting out of testing. There has yet to be a loss of funding when states do this. A bill will be introduced in the upcoming session of the Illinois General Assembly to put an explicit right for parental opt out on the books in Illinois.

6. The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) says it lacks the authority to grant waivers or pull out of PARCC completely. The Board claims that if it did grant them, there would be huge financial consequences (i.e.: loss of federal Title I funds). Thus, it punts the issue to the Illinois State Legislature, which punts it to the Department of Education (DOE). Arne Duncan, head of the DOE, would not take a position, saying that the waiver request by the Chicago Public School System (CPS) was an issue between CPS and ISBE.

7. What will the Department of Education (DOE) do to states that don’t comply? Theories vary from look the other way to draconian responses like rescinding certification for all staff in every school. Who knows? “In a similar situation last year, although the DOE threatened to withhold funding from California, the federal government relented in the end.

If you are confused, you may want to check out the online Facebook community More Than A Score . On that website, a teacher in an Illinois north suburban district makes a compelling case for delaying PARCC:

“Just got home from our district meeting about PARCC tests which will take place during March and May of this year in our district and in many school districts across the country. I teach in one of the most affluent districts in the state of Illinois. As such, we have the money and resources to administer this very expensive, computer-based test to hundreds of students; many districts nation-wide who will also administer these tests do not enjoy the same resources, but in order to get federal funding for education, they must administer the tests. In addition to the cost in dollars, however, I’d like to take this opportunity to raise parents’ awareness about how this test will impact your child’s instructional time at school. In our building, we have two computer labs and 2-4 working laptop carts. The tests, which will take between 9 and 12 hours to administer, will require that all of our computers be used exclusively for standardized testing for 23 days, 30 days for students who get extended time in accordance with their IEPs. I asked today, ‘So, as we plan our lessons for the spring, should we anticipate that we will not have access to computers for two months?’ The answer was yes. Our students will not have access to computers for two months. This is a loss, but I fear this will not be the greatest loss.

What I am already beginning to feel, even before these particular tests take over, is that data and assessment are driving instruction, in place of humanity. Time to connect with our kids and time to engage them in a love of learning is being lost. And what will the tests get us, other than a hole in our pockets? That remains to be seen, friends. Might be time to start making some noise?”

Another commenter makes a really valid argument for stopping the implementation of PARCC:

“My mom is the technology teacher at a high school in rural southern Illinois. She found out recently that she will not have access to ANY computers for her TECHNOLOGY classes for the duration of PARCC administration. Some of the classes she teaches are also dual credit with a local community college, and she has not been told if and how this loss of computer time will affect those classes. Unbelievable.”

In a letter to Chris Koch, the Illinois Superintendent of Education, and the ISBE, 30 Illinois districts expressed their opposition to PARCC. More Than a Score’s website advocates that schools should “Park the PARCC” and families should opt their children out of taking this exam. Evanston Township High School (ETHS) is one of the 30 districts signing the letter.

Thankfully, some of our state legislators sent a Letter to Superintendent Koch on December 16 asking him to look into concerns and consider delaying implementation of the PARCC. Thanks to Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, Illinois State Senators Heather Sterns and Daniel Biss, and Illinois State Representatives Kelly Cassidy, Laura Fine, Robyn Gabel, and Elaine Nekritz for asking for a formal delay in implementing PARCC.

As for Evanston, the District 65 School Board had a brief discussion at its December 1 meeting and decided to discuss PARCC again at a joint meeting with the ETHS Board. The general feeling was that elementary and middle schools had different issues from ETHS. John Price, Assistant Superintendent for District 65, recommended going forward with the test. He felt confident the district committee working on the logistics would create a smooth and low-stress testing environment for the kids. He did say, however, that the district remained “concerned about some issues.” Most Board members were anxious about what the repercussions of not going with the program might be. Only one suggested they might want to take a stand with ETHS and request a waiver, even though they would not be granted one. She worried about not being aligned as a community on this issue.

At a meeting discussing what our community could do about PARCC, the words “civil disobedience” were used.  If the efforts of our boards of education and state legislators fail, that may be the only recourse left to those of us who want to stop this runaway train. It may also be what is needed so our kids receive the educations they truly deserve.

Thanks to Saul Lieberman and Cassie Creswell for their hard work on behalf of Illinois school children and teachers, and for their help with my posts about PARCC.

Now there is a Part III coming…stay tuned.

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