It’s a Matter of Trust – My Testimony to the Governor’s PARCC Study Commission

Today, I joined a group of about 40 amazing parents, teachers, school board members (although all of them gave the caveat that they were testifying in their personal capacities) and even an amazing Superintendent to testify publicly before Governor Christie’s PARCC and Assessment Task Force. Every single person who testified did a terrific job, and I’ll note that at this public hearing, not a single member of the public spoke in favor of the PARCC test. I’ll see if I can do a better write up later about the meeting. But in the meantime, here’s a link to a video of me testifying.

And here is the text of what I said (I’m starting to feel like something of a broken record):

My name is Sarah Blaine. I’m an attorney and the mother of two daughters, ages 6 and 10, both of whom attend public schools in Montclair. I’ve been practicing law for almost a decade now, but before I went to law school, I earned a master of arts in teaching degree and taught high school English for a couple of years in rural Maine. Over the past year, as I saw the changes in my older daughter’s curriculum, I began looking into the Common Core State Standards, and the effects they were having on our kids’ schools. As part of that inquiry, I also began looking at the new tests to measure our kids’ achievement, the PARCC tests created by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career. The more I learned, the more concerned I grew. I began writing about my concerns on a personal blog, parentingthecore.com, and quite a few of my pieces – including one this morning – have been picked up by The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog.

I stand here today to tell you that the PARCC tests are not going to improve education or help our students.

It’s all really a matter of trust. That’s what a lot of our debate about PARCC and Common Core boils down to: trust – and, where opinions and plans for public education diverge, who we, as parents, can trust to have our kids’ best interests at heart. Do we trust our children’s teachers and principals: the people we can hold accountable on a personal level – by looking them in the eyes and raising our concerns – and on a policy level, by publicly bringing any concerns we may have to a democratically constituted school boards who are elected solely to deal with education issues? Or do we trust state and federal bureaucrats and elected officials who are accountable to a broad swath of voters for far more than just education policy, and therefore, as a practical matter, outsource a great deal of their education policy setting to private corporations, such as Pearson, which sells curricula and designs tests, all to benefit its own bottom line?

In an ideal world, we could trust both, but unfortunately, our world is far from ideal. I, for one, start out more skeptical of the for-profit corporation than of our local teachers, principals, and school boards.

I was recently engaged in a discussion about the Common Core and the PARCC with a parent who is a strong proponent of the Common Core and the PARCC. He shared a little bit of his story, which illuminated the trust issue for me. In short, his oldest child began his education at a private school. The parents eventually learned that their child was lagging far behind his peers in the public schools, and moved the child to our public schools. But because those parents’ trust was broken early on by that private school experience, they’ve become huge proponents of testing to ensure that they receive up-to-date information regarding their children’s progress.

I hear and can relate to those concerns, although I find it ironic that it was a private school’s failure that triggered them.

My take, however, is different. As a parent, I start the school year each year trusting my kids’ teachers. Now, that doesn’t mean that such trust can’t be eroded over the course of an academic year. But over the years, in preschool and then in our public schools, of the 15 classroom teachers my kids have had, I’ve come across exactly one teacher who broke that trust. That’s not perfect, but those are still pretty good odds. So I’m willing to trust our schools and our teachers with our kids, and to trust that they have our kids’ best interests at heart. If I find that my trust is misplaced, I’m confident that I can go up our chain of command, and ultimately publicly air my concerns at a Board of Education meeting.

What those parents I told you about, whose trust in schools was broken by a bad private school experience, have effectively done is to substitute trust in their children’s teachers for trust in a test, under the mistaken belief that a test will ensure real accountability. And perhaps in a world where the tests are trustworthy, there’s no harm in trusting tests. But unfortunately, given the amount of time and energy I’ve spent inquiring into the PARCC tests, I think those parents are going to discover that their trust in the PARCC is at least as misplaced as their earlier trust in their child’s private school.

The PARCC consortium recently published its sample “Performance Based Assessments,” which New Jersey’s public school kids will be attempting starting just over a month from now. I have a fourth grader, so I took a quick look at the fourth grade math PBA this morning. Here’s a sample question:

Jian’s family sells honey from beehives. They collected 3,311 ounces of honey from the beehives this season. They will use the honey to completely fill 4-ounce jars or 6-ounce jars.

Jian’s family will sell 4-ounce jars for $5 each or $6-ounce jars for $8 each.

Jian says if they use only 4-ounce jars, they could make $4,140 because 3,311 divided by 4 = 827 R 3. That rounds up to 828, and 828 multiplied by $5 is $4,140.

Part A

Explain the error that Jian made when finding the amount of money his family could make if they use only 4-ounce jars.

Enter your explanation in the space provided.

Take a moment. Can you tell me the error?

Here’s the error: Jian’s math was correct, but his reasoning was mistaken, because he rounded up to 828 instead of down to 827, when the 828th jar won’t be totally full, so he can’t sell it for $5. So since his family can only sell 827 full jars of honey, the answer should have been 827 jars x $5/jar = $4,135.

What is this question really testing? Is it, as the PARCC’s proponents would state, testing whether kids “really understand” remainders and have the “higher-order thinking” skills necessary to pick up on the “trick” in this question? Or is it, as is obvious to any parent, testing whether our 9 and 10 year olds are (a) picking up on the word “completely” and (b) testing whether our kids have the life and business savvy to make the connection – under the pressure of a high-stakes test – that in this one case, they should be ignoring the remainder, instead of rounding to the nearest whole number.

My concern is compounded by the emphasis that the fourth grade Common Core math standards – and the Pearson produced Envisions math curriculum purportedly aligned to those standards – places on estimating, rounding, and reasonableness. This is a copy of one of my daughter’s Envisions math workbooks. The flagged pages are all pages that ask the kids to rely on estimating, rounding, or reasonableness to arrive at their answers. It’s not every page, but as you can see, the emphasis on those skills, which I’m not denigrating, is heavy. Given that emphasis, not only is this a trick question, but the kids themselves are already primed to miss the trick by the emphasis their standards and curricula place on estimating, rounding, and reasonableness.

Trick – and other unfair – questions like this are endemic throughout the PARCC practice tests I’ve reviewed. The English Language Arts questions are even worse. It is unfair by any measure to ask 9 and 10 year olds to type thematic essays about a Maya Angelou poem and a Mathangi Subramanian story. In addition, the essay prompt itself is ambiguously worded: the prompt asks the kids to “Identify a theme in ‘Just Like Home’ and a theme in ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me.’ Write an essay that explains how the theme of the story is shown through the characters and how the theme of the poem is shown through the speaker.”

What’s unclear from the language of the essay prompt is whether the kids should be identifying one theme common to both the story and the poem, or whether the kids should be identifying separate themes for the story and the poem.

One trend I’m sure you’re aware of across the state is that many of our high schools have been eliminating midterms and finals to make room for PARCC. The ambiguity of the essay prompt – and unfair trick of the math question – illustrate why eliminating local, teacher-created tests, midterms, and finals in favor of standardized tests is a bad idea. All teachers make mistakes – both in inadvertently drafting ambiguous questions and incorrectly grading answers, but kids are savvy and can point those mistakes out to the teachers. That’s built-in accountability.

Pearson and PARCC, however, are accountable to no one. Our teachers won’t even be allowed to look at – much less discuss – the PARCC tests. They won’t see the kids’ results, or where they might have been tripped up by a trick. So there will be no one to tell us which questions were unfair, ambiguous, or otherwise problematic. That is, there’s no accountability for Pearson, and as I’ve discovered this year, there is no question that even the Pearson materials – be they PARCC practice tests or Envisions – that the public does have access to have plenty of mistakes.

If the stakes for these tests were low – and the time they sucked away from “real” teaching was minimal – then I doubt the outcry would be so intense. Instead, however, these are the tests that even this year, unproven as they are, will make up 10% of teachers’ evaluations, and they will continue to take on an increasingly central role in evaluating our teachers, schools, and children. Not surprisingly, for those kids who don’t make the cut, Pearson now controls the G.E.D. test.

I urge you to carefully review the PARCC sample tests yourselves, keeping in mind the age level of the students who are intended to take them. Please recommend to the Governor that we join the dozen or more other states, including, most recently, Mississippi, in rejecting the PARCC as a valid means of assessing our kids. New Jersey’s kids deserve better.

Our New Jersey teachers and principals are accountable to our local communities. Where individual districts have ongoing problems with ensuring educational equity, the state can step in through its Quality Review system to address those problems on a case-by-case basis. But the PARCC test is setting up a narrative that all of our schools are failing. After spending significant time reviewing what’s happening in our schools and what’s contained on a for-profit corporation’s PARCC tests, I, for one, am confident that the problem is with the test, and not with our kids, our teachers, or our schools.

Thank you.

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