Civics Lessons

The Study Commission Recommended That Our Kids Be Stuck Testing Into Eternity: Now What?

Yesterday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in New Jersey issued its long-awaited final report.  To the surprise of no one, the Governor’s minions Commission concluded that the PARCC test is wonderful, and that not only should New Jersey keep using it, we should require all high school students to take it to qualify to graduate starting with the Class of 2020, and require them to earn passing scores on the 10th grade English and Algebra I tests starting with the Class of 2021.  My older daughter is in the Class of 2023 (and my younger daughter is in the Class of 2027), so this has a direct impact on my family and me.  For the record, this year 36% of NJ students who took the 10th grade English Language Arts test receiving scores demonstrating that they met or exceeded expectations, and again, 36% of Algebra I test takers received scores reflecting that they’d met or exceeded expectations.

Here are the initial thoughts I shared on Facebook about the result:

Over a hundred people came out to the 3 public comment sessions. All but maybe ONE of them spoke against PARCC testing in NJ. Parents and educators everywhere — from teachers to my daughter’s recently retired building principal to our town’s superintendent — are opposed to this sham of a test. But the pre-determined outcome is in fact the actual outcome. Public comment had no impact whatsoever. 

The game is rigged, and it’s our children who are losing. But this outcome can be laid solidly at Chris Christie’s door, and the national media should hold him accountable for it. After all: he appointed the “independent” study commission; he appointed New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe; and he appoints all of the members of the New Jersey State Board of Education. So the buck stops with Christie. 

But on a structural level, the fact that ALL public education policy makers are ultimately accountable to one person demonstrates how broken and easily manipulated our state education policy truly is. 

We the Parents, We the Taxpayers, and We the People need to step in. It is time to demand change — an amendment to the NJ state constitution, if necessary, to get elected representation on the State Board of Education.  Rule making bodies like NJSBOE and NJDOE have tremendous power to interpret state education statutes however they see fit. They must be accountable to the people and not just to a governor dreaming of the White House. 

In NJ, our local school boards have abdicated policy making responsibility saying that they’re hamstrung by state mandates. And those state mandates come from entities that are all accountable only to our governor. Structural change is necessary if we want to preserve public education for our children and the future.

And here are my expanded thoughts (very expanded, I’m sorry, I’m a lawyer, I’m nerdy, and since I was reading through the enabling legislation myself for my own edification, I figured that at least a few of you policy nerds might want to follow along at home as well.  For the rest of you, don’t say I didn’t warn you…) about where we go from here.  I think I will do a separate post looking at the actual report itself to see if it measures up to the Common Core standards PARCC claims to measure.  Look for that tonight or tomorrow.  In the meantime, here goes…

A Brief Digression on the Death of Local Control

Wednesday night I plan to attend my local district’s Board of Education meeting.  For me, at least, the hot topic will be school tours, which are a big deal for parents of incoming kindergarteners and incoming middle schoolers in our all-magnet suburban school system.

Last weekend, a local micro-news blog created a brouhaha when it reported a scuffle between the district PTA council president and the superintendent over whether the district had decided to replace school tours with online videos. For a whole lot of reasons, I think school tours are important, so Wednesday night I plan to attend our local Board of Education’s next meeting to express my opinion during public comment.

Why does this matter? What is unusual about this vignette is how rare it is for our local Board of Education to actually have the authority to set policy about a school-related issue, so for once my comment might actually make a difference.  The only reason our local board has sole authority over this issue is that this is such a unique local issue that Trenton has not bothered to dictate tour procedures to our town.  But on virtually every other topic these days, most New Jersey education policy decisions emanate from Trenton, where the New Jersey Department of Education and the New Jersey State Board of Education issue implementing regulations for state education statutes, and issue policy guidance and bulletins to New Jersey school districts.

New Jersey’s Code of Ethics for School Board Members Demonstrates State Usurpation of Local Control 

New Jersey’s Code of Ethics for School Board Members, N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(a), requires local school board members to make this pledge even before they pledge to look out for the educational welfare of children:

“I will uphold and enforce all laws, rules and regulations of the State Board of Education, and court orders pertaining to schools.  Desired changes shall be brought about only through legal and ethical procedures.”

Although the local tide has turned and our local BOE seems slightly more independent now, for the past few years, our local school board interpreted this pledge as requiring it to slavishly follow Trenton’s mandates, regardless of whether the local board of education thought that such mandates might be harming our children.  Whether deliberately or not, they seemed to ignore the second sentence of that pledge, and nobody but nobody was willing to utter a peep against Trenton. Especially given that the Christie administration decided to ignore the legislatively enacted state aid funding formula (“SFRA”), I think they were all terrified to open their mouths and bring the wrath of Trenton down upon them in dollars of aid magically not allotted to our district.

So for the first couple of years in which I attended local Board of Education meetings, when the public spoke out – and speak out it did – about the harm that many of these state mandates were doing to children, our local BOE copped out by saying that these were decisions made in Trenton, and its hands were tied.  I urged it to take action to influence and change state policy, but was largely ignored, presumably as a naive gadfly, which I undoubtedly am.

From my talks with friends, colleagues, and fellow activists throughout the state, my understanding is that Montclair’s school board was far from alone in taking this position. This 2001 Code of Ethics for School Board Members seems to have served to hamstring many local school boards, depriving them of local control on any and all topics on which the State Board of Education and/or the New Jersey Department of Education have decided to opine.  The ethics rule, which sounds reasonable on the surface, has functioned to make our school boards little more than powerless rubber stamps for whatever state policies the NJDOE and the NJ State Board of Education decide to impose on New Jersey’s public school children.

NJ’s State-Level Policy Makers

So the real questions are – who are the members of the State Board of Education, and how does our Commissioner of Education get appointed?  Those are the true power brokers of education policy in the state, so let’s figure out how they get into office.  Here’s the answer:

The members of the NJ State Board of Education are appointed by the governor – currently, Governor Chris Christie, of course.  This is mandated by the New Jersey State Constitution of 1947 at Article 5, Section 4, Paragraph 4, which reads:

“Whenever a board, commission or other body shall be the head of a principal department, the members thereof shall be nominated and appointed by the Governor with the advice and consent of the Senate, and may be removed in the manner provided by law.  [irrelevant for our purposes section about the Lieutenant Governor’s appointment process]  Such a board, commission or other body may appoint a principal executive officer when authorized by law, but the appointment shall be subject to the approval of the Governor.  Any principal executive officer so appointed shall be removable by the Governor, upon notice and an opportunity to be heard.”

N.J.S.A. 18A:4-4 implements this constitutional requirement in the statute setting out how the New Jersey State Board of Education is chosen.  It reads, in relevant part:

“The members of the state board shall be appointed by the governor, by and with the advice and consent of the senate, for terms of six years commencing on July 1.”

What this tells us is that by now, given that we are in the seventh year of Governor Christie’s tenure, all of the New Jersey State Board of Education members were appointed, re-appointed or allowed to continue in office by Gov. Christie, and are beholden to him – and only to him – for their positions.

N.J.S.A. 18A:4-1 confirms that Art. 5, Sec. 4, Para. 4 of the Constitution applies to the state department of education, and that therefore the provisions about the appointment of a principal executive officer apply.  It reads:

“The state department of education is hereby continued as a principal department in the executive branch of the state government, and it shall consist of a state board of education, which shall be head of the department, a commissioner of education, and such divisions, bureaus, branches, committees, officers and employees as are specifically referred to in this title and as may be constituted or employed by virtue of the authority conferred by this title and by any other law.”

So again – who is responsible for appointing not just the members of the State Board of Education, but also the Commissioner of the Board of Education?  Chris Christie’s State Board of Education, subject to the governor’s approval, of course.  In fact, Dave Hespe can be removed by Chris Christie whenever Christie feels like it, so long as he gives his buddy Dave notice of his removal and an opportunity to plead his case first.

The long and the short of it is – New Jersey’s governor has a LOT of power over state education policy, especially since the 2001 local school board code of ethics hamstrung any local Board of Ed members who wanted to push back hard against asinine state mandates.  I have no idea of the backstory that led to the 2001 ethics law, but I do find it curious that the timing coincides with the federal government centralizing some control over education policy through the 2001 No Child Left Behind law.

Now, the legislature can, of course, override the State Board of Education by passing legislation abrogating Department guidance and/or Board-issued regulations.  However, to do so, it must pass such legislation through both houses of the legislature and, of course, get those bills signed by… you guessed it… the Governor.  And, of course, the implementing regulations for any such legislation passed by the legislature will be created and approved by… you guessed it… the State Board of Education.  So any way you parse it, the NJ governor has enormous control over what happens in our public schools, and among other negatives to this lack of checks and balances is the fact that governors with different policy prescriptions can wildly swing education policy from one election to the next.

The Study Commission 

Yesterday, as I mentioned at the top, the Governor’s “independent” Study Commission released its report on state testing in New Jersey, which concluded, unsurprisingly, despite around 200 in person or emailed public comments in opposition and virtually none in support, that the PARCC is super awesome.  But, of course, it’s absurd on its face to think that a Study Commission appointed by the same governor who is responsible for appointing the State Board of Education and the State Commissioner of Education would reach a different conclusion than whatever the governor’s office (or his presidential campaign) wanted it to reach.  All three of these entities are answerable only to Chris Christie, and as newspapers have reported throughout Governor Christie’s tenure, he is not hesitant to bully those who disagree with him into submission.  And when those who disagree with him are people he thinks should be loyal to him, the gloves truly come off.

So the Study Commission’s conclusion:

“However, one point must be abundantly clear: the Study Commission firmly believes all students in New Jersey’s public schools who are eligible should be required to take the State standardized assessment (i.e., PARCC).  Doing so will ensure all students are progressing well in their educational endeavors and all public schools are effective for all students.  High-quality assessments such as PARCC will hold schools accountable for serving all of their students, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds.  The Study Commission believes it will be impossible to effectively close achievement gaps between and among students without accurate and actionable information”

was pre-ordained.  Ironically, the Study Commission’s entire report would earn a big fat F under the Common Core Standards if it were graded according to PARCC scoring rubrics.  The reason for this, of course, is that paragraphs like the one I just quoted cite to absolutely no evidence to support their conclusions.

Where Do We Go From Here?

One of my takeaways from this sham of a process (and don’t even get me started on the Common Core Review Commission, which also issued recommendations yesterday, and which was, perhaps, even worse in terms of process, if that’s even possible) is that there is way too much power over education policy consolidated in the hands of one person in this state: our Governor.

There is no question that Governor Christie’s minions appointees on the State Board of Education and at NJDOE will gleefully embrace the Study Commission recommendations, and that so long as this governor or a successor who shares his education policy prescriptions remains in office, the people will have little to no ability to shape more student-friendly education policy.

It seems to me that from an education policymaking process standpoint, there are two takeaways to move New Jersey education policy in a productive direction:

(1) We need to amend the New Jersey State Constitution so that at least some of the members of the State Board of Education are elected officials, accountable directly to voters rather than to the Governor.  The governor’s control over the rule making process is way too all-encompassing, and at least some elected State Board of Education members would provide needed checks and balances for educational policy making in New Jersey.  Especially now, when the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (“ESEA reauthorization”; i.e., No Child Left Behind’s replacement) has moved a great deal of education policy making authority from the federal government back to the states, we need to ensure that state level education policy cannot be so easily held captive by special interest groups who’ve courted the governor, but no one else.

(2) We need to introduce and pass legislation that makes it explicitly ethical for local Board of Education members to push back against state mandates that harm students.  It seems to me Paragraph (b) of the Code Ethics should be strengthened and replace Paragraph (a) as the first duty of local school board members. Paragraph (b) currently reads:

“I will make decisions in terms of the educational welfare of children and will seek to develop and maintain public schools that meet the individual needs of all children regardless of their ability, race, creed, sex, or social standing.”

Our kids deserve local leaders with the authority to actually put the children’s best interests first.  As the Study Commision report hammers home, this administration can never be trusted to do that.

Who’s with me?

Updated to Add (1/13/2016): Apparently New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe agrees with me.  Here he is, quoted in yesterday’s Star Ledger:

image

New Jersey, let’s take our cue from New Jersey Education Commissioner and make a really good change to the New Jersey State Constitution.  It is time for We the People to reclaim our power over our children’s futures, instead of leaving that power consolidated in the hands of the New Jersey governor, currently Chris Christie; the unelected New Jersey State Board of Education, each of whom owes his current tenure in the job to Chris Christie; and Christie appointee, New Jersey Education Commission David Hespe.

Testing and the Re-Segregation of Public Ed

Today, I was part of a full house at the New Jersey Senate Education Committee as it considered bills and a resolution relating to the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career) tests.  Along with many other grassroots parent activists, I am frustrated by the Senate Committee Chair’s unwillingness to set down all of the much stronger PARCC bills passed by the New Jersey State Assembly for a vote in her committee.  Rather, only one of the four bills, prohibiting PARCC-style testing for grades K-2, was set down for a vote by her Committee.  Senator Ruiz also offered a substantially watered down replacement bill for the Assembly bill to notify parents of standardized testing.  Senator Ruiz’s version of the bill, for example, fails to require that parents be notified of information as basic as what use local districts will make of standardized tests administered to their children (e.g., will the tests factor into student placement into gifted and talent programs or remedial education, etc.).  

So instead, I focused my efforts on the two bills introduced by my terrific local state senator, Senator Nia Gill.  Senator Gill introduced two bills: one to require local districts to publish their PARCC opt-out numbers within 10 days of completing test administration, and the other to explicitly prohibit New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe from withholding state aid from districts with high PARCC refusal rates.  

The text of my full testimony is below.  In it, I address the elephant in the room: the use of standardized test scores as a proxy to encourage resegregation of school districts by class and, to the extent that class and race are unfortunately still correlated in this country, race.

My testimony:

My name is Sarah Blaine.  I am here today to in particular support Senator Nia Gill’s bills, S2884 and S2881.  No one is paying me to be here today: in fact, I took a day off work to attend this hearing.  I have two children, a kindergartener and a fourth grader, in the Montclair Public Schools. Both of them only get one shot at their educations.

When I saw changes in my older daughter’s curriculum as a result of Common Core, I sat down to read the standards.  I’m an attorney now, but before law school I taught high school English.  Given that I would have loved some standards (or, heck, books) as a new teacher in a rural community with few resources, I started out on the assumption that national standards were probably a good idea.

But then I watched what was happening in my daughter’s classroom change.  As PARCC loomed, homework became more test-prep focused, with multiple choice questions and written paragraphs that had to follow strict formulas.  I learned that my older daughter’s school had reduced the number of elective periods.  Social studies education virtually disappeared.  Science became reading the textbook and filling in blanks, instead of labs and hands on experimentation.  My 4th grader has not had a single field trip this year — and as far as I know, none are scheduled.  I realized that I was seeing a predictable result of high-stakes testing in action: my daughter’s school was narrowing the curriculum to increase the time available for test prep. 

In Montclair, as across the country, test scores are closely correlated with the socio-economics of the populations tested. Although Montclair is consistently characterized in the press as “affluent,” according to NJDOE statistics, over 20% of our total school population is economically disadvantaged. Montclair has two NCLB focus schools not because those schools are lousy — they’re not — but because we are one of the few NJ towns with an economically and racially diverse enough school population to demonstrate an achievement gap.  This has driven an increased emphasis on test prep, which benefits no one.

Last December my spunky 4th grader testified directly to our Board about why “PARCC stinks” based on how test-prep was taking over her classroom.  I can tell you this much: after that speech, which went viral and led to her live appearance on national television, I have no doubt, without any need for PARCC results, that when the time comes my child will be college and career ready. Of course, I already knew that: her parents’ advanced degrees, race, and socio-economic status make that a virtual certainty. If you policymakers want more children to succeed, you need to spend your time implementing equitable economic and housing policies to ensure that all citizens have the chance to join a robust and secure middle class.  

The Montclair Public Schools administration worked hard to implement — and, indeed, cheerlead for — PARCC.  However, locally I wasn’t alone in my concerns about the effect that PARCC was having on our schools: more than 42% of Montclair children refused PARCC.  However, we Montclair taxpayers were not even able to obtain that statistic from the school district without a fight.  That is why I support Senator Gill’s bill to ensure that taxpayers are afforded access to the testing numbers.

Recently, Education Commissioner Hespe — and Governor Christie — began explicitly threatening to withhold state funding from school districts with high PARCC refusal rates.  That threat is unacceptable, as the school district has no way to compel me or any other parent to allow our children to sit for these tests.  To be clear, I don’t say no because my child is anxious or scared. 

Rather, I say no to PARCC because I see, as a parent, the destructive effect that annual testing and high-stakes uses of annual results are having on the quality of education offered in our state’s traditionally high-quality public schools.  I see that aggregate test scores are used — be it by real estate agents or home buyers — as proxies for socio-economic status, with the effect of further re-segregating our communities.  I see it, and I get it, because I, too, looked at those test scores and school rankings when we were choosing the New Jersey community in which we wanted to raise our children.  But then I realized that I didn’t want my children growing up in the same narrow bubble that characterized my childhood in Short Hills — and instead of moving to the town with the highest test scores, we moved to Montclair.

If more New Jersey towns were integrated like Montclair, all of our children would learn a little more compassion, a little more wisdom, a little more humility, a little more sense of what’s possible, a little less fear of those not like them, and a little more awareness of how the accidents of birth can and do affect children’s futures.  But politically, that will never fly, so you continue to test children and communities into submission, instead of choosing the tough — and admittedly expensive — policies that might actually work.  Then, when parents like me say no, Commissioner Hespe tries to threaten us into submission.  And so I support Senator Gill’s bill to prevent Commissioner Hespe from withholding funds from districts like Montclair, where the parents have had the courage to say no to the destructive effects of high-stakes annual tests.

I ask you to support these bills because democracy cannot function effectively if it is predicated on failure to inform the citizenry of what is happening in our public schools.  I ask you to support these bills because democracy cannot function effectively if it is predicated on empty threats from state-level bureaucrats meant to intimidate parents and communities.  Our children deserve better.  Thank you.

GUEST VOICES: Mom Lynley Jones to Senator Lamar Alexander

If you are looking for a short, sweet, and to-the-point sample letter to send to fixingNCLB@help.senate.gov, please check out this note from my neighbor and close friend Lynley Jones to Senator Lamar Alexander and the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor & Pension Committee:

Dear Senator Alexander,

I urge you to repeal the annual testing requirements enshrined in the current “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) legislation. Any NCLB reauthorization should, at most, require testing three times during a child’s career. Further, any reauthorization should remove the pressures on States and local school districts to attach high-stakes consequences to test results. Please eliminate the imposition of penalties and sanctions such as teacher evaluations, teacher compensation, firing staff, requiring conversion to charter school status, or school closings, based on test scores.

Our public schools are the cradle of our democracy. A diverse and thriving democracy depends on an educational system that prepares children for thoughtful, creative, constructive, and well-informed debate. The health and well-being of our nation depends on giving children the time to eat a healthy lunch, exercise their bodies, and think freely and creatively during unstructured periods of time such as recess. The success of our economy depends on rewarding and encouraging creativity and novel approaches to problem-solving.

The over-emphasis on high-stakes standardized testing risks all of this. Please stop allowing the over-emphasis on testing to squelch the joy out of school for the next Steve Jobs, E. B. White or Georgia O’Keefe. American children deserve better.

Sincerely,

Lynley Jones

Montclair, New Jersey

cc (via web submission):

Senator Robert Menendez

Senator Cory Booker

No Child Left Behind Reauthorization – ADD YOUR VOICE TODAY

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).

About Me

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.

Sincerely,

Sarah Blaine

Montclair, New Jersey

cc: Senator Robert Menendez (via web submission)

Senator Cory Booker (via email)

Representative Donald Payne, Jr. (via web submission)