- One notion I see coming from some school leaders these days is that PARCC is a "better" test because it breaks down skills and abilities into subgroups, and that can help districts and schools make good curricular and instructional decisions.
In general, I really don't have a problem with this idea... provided these school leaders approach the data correctly. How should a school or district administrator view PARCC scores? As a limited source of data, subject to noise and validity problems as much, if not more, than any other assessment.
According to the PARCC folks themselves, the Math tests have about 30 to 40 items each. Break that down into a set of several different skills, and you're talking about a scant few questions for each individual area of content. Which is fine! I'm not saying the PARCC should be much longer so that it can be comprehensive -- that would be absurd.
I'm just saying that you have to look at the limitations of the test before you act on it. Maybe your Grade 7 students didn't do so well on calculating the areas of circles on the PARCC. Fine -- look into it. But don't think the PARCC, by itself, comes close to giving you actionable information. The one or two items that asked your kids to calculate these areas probably don't give you enough data.
As a general rule: any school leader who thinks the PARCC is anything more a supplementary source of data has not been properly trained. And any state education official who continues to claim the PARCC is critical for developing good curricular practices is way overselling the test.
- I don't understand why the PARCC people haven't made the commitment to open up their exam every year and release every item on every test. I mean, that's the advantage of having a collation of states, right? If there's just one test but it's distributed across multiple states, we should be able, at a reasonable cost, to make these exams fully transparent. So why don't we?
How can anyone claim the PARCC can improve instruction if the educators who are supposed to scrutinize the results can't even see the questions? Isn't that a minimal requirement of an assessment that is supposed to provide information on individual students? That you can see the question and the answer for each kid right next to each other? Sure, it would cost more, because items could no longer be reused. But the losses would be offset by having more kids take the same test every year.
I know some of you are going to hate me for saying this, but: it makes sense to band states together to have one common assessment just so that assessment can be fully transparent. Why don't the PARCC folks agree with me?
- There are many reasons people opt their kids out of standardized tests. Some are undoubtedly making a conservative political statement -- but I haven't met any of them. The parents I've spoken with generally have one of three concerns:
1) The tests are not appropriate, in their view, for their child. They will tell you their son or daughter is particularly anxious about testing, or has a disability that makes testing onerous, or any number of other reasons.
I have very little patience these days with the folks who are bad-mouthing parents who opt-out, snidely tut-tutting that these parents are "coddling" their kids. I don't know how you can possibly say you're for "choice" and then deny parents any say in addressing something that they believe is harming their children.
Of course, if you pulled back the high stakes linked to these tests, many of the fears of children and parents would likely recede. So what's more important to you folks advocating hard for the PARCC: having the data, or retaining the right to use it incorrectly and punitively?
2) Other parents -- and these are largely the parents of older students -- think the tests are little more than distractions from assessments that really matter: SATs, ACTs, APs, IBs, school finals, and so on. Their kids are burned out on tests to begin with; why should they take the Grade 11 PARCC English test when they are going to sit through a couple of administrations of the SAT?
The idea that these kids should be forced to sit through the PARCC because otherwise we won't be able to make judgements about so-called "achievement gaps" strains credulity. So you've now proved with yet another battery of tests that schools are engines of social replication -- OK, now what? You couldn't tell this before from SAT and ACT scores, and AP scores, and AP and SAT and ACT participation rates, and graduation rates, and the old Grade 10 proficiency tests, and all the Grade 3 through 8 tests the kids took before they got to high school? You needed more data to prove the system is inequitable? Really?
End-of-course high school testing was rammed through New Jersey with practically no debate whatsoever, and this state is hardly alone. Where is any evidence standardized, statewide EOC tests lead to superior outcomes? I haven't seen it. Until the reformsters come up with that evidence, it's more than reasonable for parents, feeling that their high schoolers have enough worries, to pull them out of the PARCC.
3) Most of the parents I speak with have this final concern: something is wrong with American education, it is exemplified by testing, and opting-out is an act to bring about some needed changes to our schools.
In the leafy 'burbs, the concern is that too many kids are burning out on their Race To Nowhere, and that the joy of learning is being stripped away.
In the urban centers, parents of color are seeing that decades of testing have led to more inequity in our schools, with the weak promises of "choice" replacing a meaningful commitment to equity of opportunity.
Standardized testing is the status quo, and the status quo is not acceptable anymore.
Again, I do think there is a place for standardized testing. But we've been giving these tests for years and, arguably, educational inequity is now worse. Where's the payoff? Why continue to do the same thing over and over and expect a different result?
- If the purpose of these tests is to point out that educational inequity needs to be addressed, why are we using them for so many other purposes? As the National Research Council says:
Often a single assessment is used for multiple purposes; in general, however, the more purposes a single assessment aims to serve, the more each purpose will be compromised. For instance, many state tests are used for both individual and program assessment purposes. This is not necessarily a problem, as long as assessment designers and users recognize the compromises and trade-offs such use entails. [emphasis mine]In other words: it's fine to use these tests as supplemental sources of data. But the notion that they can simultaneously serve multiple purposes and serve them well is just not reasonable. If the point of PARCC is system accountability -- a worthy objective, in my view -- then let's use it for that, and not pretend it's adequate by itself for student assessment and curricular evaluation. At best, it yields some data that might or might not be useful -- that's it.
Speaking of which...
- Anyone who tells you that teachers and their unions object to PARCC because they object to accountability is being foolish and, worse, insulting. I, for one, am fed up with no-nothings who never spent a day in front of a class implying that I don't care about improving my practice simply because I'm pointing out the limitations of these tests are far greater than their promoters care to admit.
I also mightily resent the implication that I am some sort of patsy who's allowed my union to blind me to the awesomeness of standardized testing. As I said before: the purpose of these tests is system accountability. But if we're going to use them for things like student assessment or teacher evaluation or school-level interventions, the very least we should do is acknowledge that they are not up to the task of providing data that compels particular actions.
No teacher worth his or her salt is against being evaluated properly. But the use of these tests, tied to noisy VAMs and SGPs that compel actions based on arbitrary cut scores, is completely without merit. Argue if you want, but don't accuse me of shirking my responsibilities for simply pointing out what groups like the American Statistical Association have already said.
Further, we teachers have seen the corrupting influence testing has had on our schools. I know some reformy folks, including state education leaders, want to silence teacher voices over this (more on this story later). But the fact is that many educators are genuinely concerned about the pernicious effects of over-testing. Dismissing their concerns by impugning their motives is as nasty and lazy as it gets.
That's all for now about testing; let's talk about vouchers next.