Peter Greene over at Curmudgucation remains my favorite education blogger because of his incisive ability to cut through the crap and point out what’s important. My only concern, however, is that because he writes so much excellent content, sometimes some of his most critical messages get lost in the shuffle. This is an example (not that I’m suggesting he should post less; quite the contrary!).
As Peter Greene pointed out yesterday, any and all of us — parents, teachers, administrators, students, policymakers, think tank denizens, taxpayers, bloggers — should be dropping everything this weekend to take up Senator Lamar Alexander on his invitation to write to the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee regarding its proposed Elementary and Secondary Education Act (“ESEA”) (i.e., No Child Left Behind (“NCLB”)) reauthorization proposal!
The email you need to send your thoughts to is: fixingNCLB@help.senate.gov — once again, that’s fixingNCLB@help.senate.gov — and in case you missed it, mailto:fixingNCLB@help.senate.gov is the email address we should be flooding this weekend.
According to Senator Alexander’s Press Release, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is holding hearings on the extent of testing, with at least the first hearing scheduled for Wednesday, January 21, 2015. Please don’t miss this opportunity to add your voice to the debate regarding annual standardized testing by a means that could actually make a difference.
This is democracy in action and — no matter what your opinion is — shame on you as a citizen of this democracy if you don’t take the time to add your voice to the chorus (and instead let the monied lobbyists substitute their voices for yours).
Below is my contribution.
P.S. Sorry Peter, but brevity is not my forte!
Dear Senator Alexander and the Members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee:
I write to you today to urge you to repeal the annual testing requirements enshrined in the current iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (“ESEA”), which is most commonly known as No Child Left Behind (“NCLB”). Any ESEA/NCLB reauthorization should, at most, require testing three times during a child’s career. Further, any ESEA/NCLB reauthorization should remove the pressures on States and local school districts to attach high-stakes consequences to test results including, but not limited to, tying teacher (or teacher preparation program) evaluations to test results and/or imposing closing or other sanctions on neighborhood schools with low test scores (such as firing staff or requiring them to convert to charter school status).
My name is Sarah Blaine and I am the mother of a 4th grader and a kindergartner, both of whom attend the public schools here in Montclair, New Jersey, which is a socio-economically integrated town with widely respected (but, due to our diversity, never particularly highly “ranked”) public schools that serve a diverse population, yet regularly manage to send top-performing students to the most highly selective colleges and university in the country. I’m a graduate of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. I also earned my J.D. with high honors from Rutgers University’s School of Law (Newark), and I’ve been practicing law for the past nine years. Before I went to law school, I earned my master of arts in teaching degree from the University of Maine, and I taught high school English at a public school in western Maine.
Last winter, as I watched Common Core State Standards-fueled changes unfold in my then-third grader’s classroom, I began to occasionally blog about the experience. To my continued surprise, my second blog post was published in The Washington Post under the headline, “You Think You Know What Teachers Do, Right? Wrong!” where it generated well over a million page views and was the most emailed and shared piece on the Washington Post’s website for a few days. I’ve published a number of additional pieces on The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, including: “Pearson’s Wrong Answer – and Why It Matters in the High-Stakes Testing Era,” “Mom to Common Core Task Force: Take the 4th-Grade PARCC Practice Test. I Dare You to Tell Me It Makes Sense,” and “The Concept Education Secretary Duncan Has Entirely Missed.” I urge you to take a few minutes to read them.
Annual Standardized Testing Narrows Curriculum
My writing began as an inquiry into whether the changes I saw unfolding in my daughter’s classroom were positive or negative. I really didn’t know the answer, and I still think it’s more nuanced than Common Core is good or Common Core is bad. I certainly never imagined that my writing would lead me to become a proponent of the test refusal movement: the reality is that I was a National Merit Semi-Finalist back in the day, and during my own education, I never met a standardized test I didn’t like. In fact, standardized tests often saved my tail, as I was one of those classic students whose report card was littered with “Underachiever” and “Does Not Work Up To Potential.” Standardized tests let me prove that my grades did not always reflect my intellect and that I might be, as I in fact was, a “late bloomer.” So I am not someone who is naturally inclined to oppose standardized testing.
But as I’ve watched the effect that standardized tests — and, in particular, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (“PARCC”) test — are having on my children’s education, I’ve grown increasingly concerned that our nation’s over-emphasis on testing is driving our public schools in the wrong direction. In an effort to bring at times much needed change to low-performing school districts, you as policymakers have imposed a test and punishment regime on all public schools (even those that are high-performing), which has led to unintended yet very real consequences for all public schools and the students they serve.
In particular, the onerous scored-based consequences for teachers, schools, and districts have placed inordinate pressure on teachers, schools, and districts to “teach to the test.” Some proponents of the testing approach to education will say that there is nothing wrong with teaching to a “good” test. Leaving aside, for the moment, the question of whether the new tests, such as PARCC, are “good” tests worth teaching to, the question we need to ask ourselves is: “What are we not teaching?” That is, what units, lessons, materials, and concepts are teachers not teaching to make room for the test-prep required for successful performance on the PARCC and similar tests across the country? Once we’ve identified what’s not being taught, we then have to ask ourselves whether the tradeoff is worthwhile. I can tell you, wholeheartedly and without reservation, that the tradeoffs I’m seeing are not worthwhile.
When annual standardized tests have high-stakes consequences, topics that aren’t covered on the test aren’t taught.
When annual standardized tests have high-stakes consequences, teachers who attempt to tailor education to their students are subversive.
When annual standardized tests have high-stakes consequences, teachers who attempt to provide meaningful social studies, civics, and history instruction are subversive.
When annual standardized tests have high-stakes consequences, teachers who reach students through class discussion and debate are subversive.
When annual standardized tests have high-stakes consequences, subjects such as music, theater, art, and physical education become afterthoughts.
When annual standardized tests have high-stakes consequences, small children are denied the recess time their bodies crave.
When annual standardized tests have high-stakes consequences, our children become important to our local districts for the data they can provide rather than for the human beings that they are.
As frustrating as the myriad other objections to the PARCC in particular are, it’s the above-described narrowing of the curriculum that is the basis for my real objection to annual standardized testing coupled with high-stakes consequences.
PARCC Illustrates What’s Wrong with Teaching to Tests Rather than Teaching for Democracy
PARCC, however, is illustrative.
The PARCC is not like the standardized tests I took in elementary school, junior high school, or high school. The PARCC is not even like the GRE or LSAT. Frankly, it is most reminiscent of the Bar Exam. The fourth grade PARCC English-Language Arts practice test asks nine and ten year olds to identify the themes in a Maya Angelou poem and a Mathangi Subramanian story and then to “explain how the theme of the story is shown through the characters and how the theme of the poem is shown through the speaker.” As a former high school English teacher, I can tell you that thematic essays are often challenging for early high-school students, and that there is no question that they’re developmentally inappropriate for fourth graders.
The multiple choice questions on the fourth grade PARCC English Language Arts test are poorly worded, confusing, and susceptible to arguments that more than one answer choice might be correct. The computer-based format is difficult to navigate, confusing when you switch from one approved device to another, and developmentally inappropriate to the extent that it asks 8, 9, and 10 year olds to type essay responses. Frankly, the PARCC sample tests themselves are the biggest argument against these particular tests, and, if you haven’t already, I urge you to sit down and take some of them. Really, if you’re going to require that our small children take these tests, you should at least do us the courtesy of sitting down and taking them yourselves. I don’t think it’s possible to understand the consequences of your policy decisions without looking at what your policies are requiring of small humans.
But as to PARCC, even its name demonstrates what is wrong with the test-based accountability movement. As noted above, the PARCC acronym stands for “Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career.” Its proponents will tell you that its goal is to measure students’ progress toward “college and career readiness,” whatever that means. But this is where I part ways with PARCC’s proponents. We taxpayers don’t pay for public education to spend our money providing college and career prep for other people’s kids. If we did, as a taxpayer I’d tell you to go pay to educate your kid as you see fit, and let me take care of educating mine. But as a citizen of a democracy, I believe I have a duty to contribute to the public education of all children, because education is fundamental to maintaining a vibrant and meaningful democracy. That is, the purpose of education is not college and career prep: the purpose of public education is preparing citizens for thoughtful participation in the democratic process. PARCC doesn’t measure this, and PARCC test prep doesn’t prepare kids for the duties of democracy.
Social Studies Education Then and Now
I was educated in the public schools of a wealthy New Jersey town (Millburn-Short Hills) long before the days of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, or PARCC. In those days, our teachers believed in educating citizens, and test prep wasn’t on anyone’s radar. In fourth grade, then as now, the social studies topic for the year was New Jersey. But in my fourth grade class, studying New Jersey meant designing and building a model Lenni Lenape village, learning a New Jersey song, writing and presenting research reports on each of New Jersey’s 21 counties, studying colonial life in New Jersey, and a field trip to Allaire State Park’s Allaire Village to learn about the post-colonial iron industry. It was an incredible course of study, which is why I remember it more than 30 years later.
My older daughter is now in fourth grade. Her social studies topic this year is also New Jersey. But we are now halfway through the school year, and the sum total of her social studies education has been reading a chapter of her textbook to prepare for a map skills test, reading a chapter about the states in the Northeast, and bubbling-in questions at the back of Scholastic News’s Common Core aligned “magazines.” The richness of my fourth grade social studies experience is gone. That is the real effect that annualized testing has on schools.
And what is she doing instead? She’s preparing for the PARCC. The Scholastic News assignments with their multiple-choice questions are thinly-veiled test prep. The map skills get taught because reading and interpreting maps are fair game on the PARCC. She’s spent 6 hours — and counting — just learning to navigate the computer interface, including learned how to manipulate the protractor when her math class hasn’t yet studied angles, so none of them know what a protractor is or why they’d need to use it. For language arts, she’s reading test-length friendly passages and drafting formulaic paragraphs reacting to them. And even though strict adherence to writing formulas produces nothing but bad writing, she can’t deviate from them, because Pearson’s test graders will be looking for each element of the formula, and not whether her content is compelling. She’s not building models of villages, going on field trips, or learning to write research reports, because none of those things can be tested on the PARCC.
And where teachers’ evaluations and schools’ annual report cards are dependent on test results, those tests drive curriculum.
The difference between my daughter’s fourth grade public school social studies curriculum and mine is a direct result of our test-focused culture, and the PARCC only exacerbates this divide.
What You Can Do When You Reauthorize ESEA/NCLB
Please stop requiring local districts to substitute test prep for citizenship prep. Please allow local communities to determine how to best reach the students they’re responsible for teaching. We can do better for our kids. I know this, because my fourth grade teacher did better for me. But annualized testing — and the test prep pressures they cause — are making good teaching impossible, which is why I am, as a matter of conscience, refusing to allow my child to take the PARCC. On behalf of all of our nation’s kids, please join me in rejecting any reauthorization of ESEA/NCLB that continues the current requirement of annualized standardized testing or that attaches high-stakes consequences for teachers or schools to the scores that children achieve on those tests.
Montclair, New Jersey
cc: Senator Robert Menendez (via web submission)
Senator Cory Booker (via email)
Representative Donald Payne, Jr. (via web submission)