Millburn Graduate Takes On Millburn Superintendent’s Logic

Dear Superintendent Crisfield:

As a graduate of the Millburn Public Schools (Class of 1991) where you currently serve as Superintendent, I feel compelled to respond to your February 19, 2015 NJ Spotlight Op-Ed regarding the movement to refuse the PARCC tests. But first please indulge me in a brief digression:

My History in the Millburn Public Schools

I began kindergarten at Millburn’s Deerfield School in the fall of 1978. From kindergarten forward, school was a place where I felt valued as a human being, and where learning was something that everyone around me took seriously. Even today, as a mother of two elementary school students myself, I look back on my Millburn education as the gold-standard of what a public education can and should be. I remember each of my elementary school teachers by name, and I can still recall many of the projects I worked on in their classes.

My Millburn education is the foundation that allowed me to graduate from Millburn as a National Merit Semi-Finalist, go on to complete my undergraduate studies at Wesleyan University, and eventually allowed me to earn two graduate degrees: an M.A.T. from the University of Maine, and eventually a J.D. from Rutgers-Newark. My Millburn peers have been extraordinarily successful. Just look at award-winning young adult author and editor David Levithan (he was one of the editors-in-chief of The Miller when I was a staff member), or one of the co-valedictorians of the class of 1991, my close friend Debbie James, who is a terrific Harvard-educated primary care pediatrician up in Cambridge. Our graduates are successful in all walks of life, and it’s insane to think that Millburn students — then or now — leave the high school as anything other than “college and career ready.”

As a mother, my Millburn education means that I know what public education can and should be. I now live in Montclair. After months of inquiry, I joined the PARCC-refusal movement as a protest against what the high-stakes testing culture is doing to prevent my kids’ teachers from engaging them the way that my Millburn teachers engaged me.

Contrary to your mischaracterization of parents’ motivations, I did not join the opt-out movement because I am “looking out for what [I] feel is [my] child’s best interest.” You state:

I know the PARCC opt-out movement is popular, and I know the people who are part of it are only looking out for what they feel is their child’s best interest, so I do not blame them personally. But from the systemic perspective, opting out is a concept that cannot work. Even though it will be unpopular and will attract an aggressive reaction, somebody has to stand up and point out that the opt-out movement has to stop. It is just not a practical or viable approach to public education.

Frankly, my kid (like most of her contemporaries in Millburn) will be fine whether she takes the PARCC test or not. I joined the test-refusal movement because the systemic pressure placed on public schools by high-stakes standardized testing must be stopped for the sakes of all of our children. We can and must do better by our kids, and if educational leaders like yourself are unwilling to step up to the plate, then we parents have no choice but to step in to preserve our vision of what public schools can and should be.

Your Arguments

Your editorial boils down to a slippery slope argument that misses the larger point of what the high-stakes standardized test movement is about. In addition, you conflate a broader category (assessment) with a far narrower subset of that category (high-stakes standardized tests). Indeed, within that logical fallacy, you also conflate the low-stakes standardized tests of the pre-No Child Left Behind days with the high-stakes standardized tests of today. Finally, you throw in a good dose of patronizing adjectives to describe your community’s parents (the loaded word “hysterical” used to describe a largely woman-driven movement is particularly egregious).

First, your slippery slope argument relies on a few inartfully worded refusal letters to take the position that the grassroots movement against high-stakes standardized tests is “leading us down a very dangerous path” (i.e., down a classic slippery slope). You argue:

[O]pting out of things with such broad brush strokes is different, and taken to its extreme, this new version of opting out will destroy public education as we know it today. If we don’t stop facilitating and/or encouraging all this “opting out” or “refusing” (or whatever it’s called), we might as well set up a la carte public schools.

Your concern stems from refusal letters penned by some of your parents that not only refuse the PARCC test itself, but also refuse “anything to do with the Common Core.” I agree: that’s a silly position for a parent to take. But you are your community’s educational leader. To a large degree I’d posit that the blame for those inartful letters lies with you, as their leader, for not leading your community through conversation and consensus-building around community reaction to the PARCC tests and how Millburn could push back against state and federal edicts, especially considering that its reliance on state and federal dollars is relatively minimal. Instead, what I’ve been hearing is that at Millburn High School, your administration has been using Common Core to enforce lock-step curriculum on your highly-skilled and professional teachers. For instance, I’ve gotten confirmation from multiple sources that your high school English department now requires all teachers of the same course to teach the same lesson plans on the same day, which, to be frank, I find anathema to everything I valued about my own Millburn education. That’s leadership by fiat, which is a far cry from leadership through consensus-building in partnership with Millburn’s highly-skilled faculty. My jaw hit the floor when I first heard that story, and despite the multiple confirmations I’ve gathered, I still have a hard time believing it’s true. What it does tell me is how scared and beaten-down even Millburn’s teachers must feel, and that’s a tragedy for everyone involved with Millburn public education — especially the students.

Next, your piece creates a straw-man argument by conflating two things that aren’t synonymous: assessment and high-stakes standardized testing. High-stakes standardized testing is indisputably one form of assessment, but not all assessment takes the form of high-stakes standardized testing. You then imply that parents who refuse PARCC are also refusing to allow their kids to be assessed by their classroom teachers. Your logic is again flawed.

In point of fact, I have yet to meet a parent or teacher involved in the test-refusal movement who thinks that we shouldn’t assess kids. Indeed, I have yet to meet a parent or teacher involved in the test-refusal movement who thinks that teachers should not be allowed to test students. But as I’m sure you recall from your graduate studies (I certainly do from mine), assessment does not require testing, and certainly all tests need not be high-stakes tests used to punish schools, teachers, administrators, and students.

You imply that parents who are refusing PARCC are also refusing to allow teachers to assess their students. Nothing could be further from the truth. During my years in the Millburn Public Schools, my work on each of the projects mentioned above was assessed by my teachers. I am sure that Millburn parents continue to welcome teachers’ feedback — at conferences, on report cards, and via grades on individual assignments — on their children’s growth as students. Your argument is, frankly, sad, and I would have expected more from the leader of the talented faculty who comprise the Millburn Public Schools.

Similarly, you also conflate the low-stakes Iowas and similar norm-referenced standardized tests of yore (in my time, they were actually CTBS, not Iowas, but I digress) with the high-stakes HSPA, NJ ASK, and now PARCC that post-date No Child Left Behind. This argument not only conflates unlike things (the Iowa and CTBS type test scores were not aggregated and published to the community at large to be touted by real estate agents), but it is also disingenuous, as Iowa and CTBS test scores weren’t used as a potential basis to fire teachers and reconstitute or close schools. Unlike the post-No Child Left Behind criterion-referenced state-wide tests, the CTBS tests of my youth were low-stakes standardized tests, and thus were functionally distinct from HSPA, NJ ASK, and now PARCC. At most, the low-stakes standardized tests of my childhood were one factor among many used to place kids into gifted and talented programs.

Finally, you characterize test-refusing parents as “hysterical.” As I am sure you are aware, the root of the word “hysterical” is in the Greek for “uterus.” Feminist scholars have analyzed how accusations of hysteria against women-led movements are a common means of social control exerted by straight, white men against woman-led social movements. I’m sure this was not your intent, and in fact I find real irony in your use of the word “hysterical” to describe the grassroots organizers against the PARCC given the nature of your own arguments, which truly are hysterical given that they rely on propaganda techniques such as the slippery slope and conflating similar terms. Nevertheless, your linguistic choice, although presumably unintentional, is patronizing and acts as an attempt to exert patriarchal control over a largely woman-led movement. As an aside, you can thank Dr. Cullen-Bender, my 7th grade Millburn Junior High School Communication Skills teacher, for my ability to identify, analyze, and reject the types of propaganda and false-logic techniques that form the basis of your editorial.

Proposals for Collaboration and Consensus-Building:

As a Millburn graduate, I have a few suggestions:

1. You mention some of your own concerns with the effects of high-stakes testing (e.g., that they take too long to administer, that they lead to problematic comparisons between district and schools, and, worst of all, that they’re inappropriately used to evaluate teachers). Those are many of the same reasons cited by the parents in your community for refusing the PARCC. I’d guess that along with those concerns, many of your local parents are also concerned that high-stakes testing in general — and PARCC in particular — is leading toward the same narrowing of the curriculum that led me as a Montclair parent to refuse to allow my daughter to be tested.

What if, instead of fighting your parents over their legitimate concerns with the narrowing of world-class curriculum I benefited from in the Millburn Public Schools, you instead helped to lead the test-refusal movement, and in leading it, worked with your local parents to craft a test-refusal form that was limited to the specific issue at hand: high-stakes statewide standardized testing?

Test-refusal letters don’t need to be like the ones you mentioned. In a district like mine (Montclair), in the wake of our Board’s courageous decision to lead by passing a refusal policy, here’s the full-text of my refusal email to my daughter’s principal:

In accordance with the district policy passed by our Board of Education last night, I am writing to notify you that I refuse to allow Elizabeth Blaine to take the PARCC test. Please let me know that you’ve received and recorded this note. In addition, please advise (at your earliest convenience) what alternative arrangements Hillside is making for students who refuse.

As you know, our decisions is in no way a reflection on you or Hillside School. Rather, it is our attempt to stand with you and with Elizabeth’s teachers by refusing to allow student test scores to determine the fates of our teachers and our schools.

Thank you.

You’ll note that there’s no muss, no fuss, and no slippery slope to complain about. But that’s because despite our differences (and we have many over in opinionated Montclair), we were ultimately able to come together as a community to craft a refusal policy that respects our community’s legitimate concerns about the use of the PARCC tests. Millburn parents would have been far better served if you (or Millburn’s Board of Education) had done the same, rather than chastising them for the concerns that even you agree are legitimate.

2. What if, instead of drafting a poison pen op-ed criticizing your students’ parents, you instead led them in effective protest against PARCC and other high-stakes tests, as, for instance, Principal Carol Burris has done over on Long Island?

Then you’d be controlling the message and ensuring that the PARCC refusals were limited to PARCC (and perhaps NJ ASK), rather than seeking to refuse everything under the sun.

3. What if you gave your students hands-on education in the democratic process by allowing them to participate — during school hours and of course on an elective basis — in the democratic processes aimed at reducing the annual high-stakes testing requirements by, for instance, lobbying their state and federal legislators in favor of bills like A-4165, A-4190, and A-3079 and a grade-span testing version of the ESEA reauthorization; attending and commenting at local and state school board meetings; and testifying before the NJ Assembly and NJ Senate’s Education Committees?

Then your students would have the sort of real world authentic educational experience that they’d remember for the rest of their lives, even more than I remember the projects my Deerfield teachers created for me.

4. What if you had led your parents through consensus building and educating them about the issues facing public schools today (e.g., that the proper target of their anger with Common Core is activism at the state and federal levels, rather than local refusals) instead of berating them with your own “hysterical” slippery slope arguments (e.g., your “opting out will destroy public education as we know it today” argument discussed herein) against the straw-man of parents’ inartfully crafted refusal letters that include opting-out of Common Core curriculum as well as PARCC?

Then you’d be able to gather data to show that parents in a town like Millburn want more for their kids than the narrowing of curriculum forced on schools, teachers, and communities by high-stakes standardized tests that diminish instruction in social studies and the arts. Then you’d be able to educate your parents about the real problems with decisions that have ceded educational policy making to the state and federal instead of local levels, and perhaps you’d be leading a grassroots movement to effectuate a return of education decision-making to the local level, where it can be carefully tailored to meet the individual needs of individual communities.

Parting Thoughts

You yourself note that there are precedents for opting-out of limited portions of the public school curriculum. You agree that those precedents have not “destroyed public education as we know it today.” PARCC refusal won’t — and shouldn’t — destroy public education either, as it, especially if narrowly-tailored by proactive education leaders, can and should be just as limited as refusing to dissect fetal pigs. PARCC acceptance, however, along with all of the high-stakes consequences that come along with it, might be the final nail in the coffin for local control of public education. I am not sure why Millburn’s educational leader, of all people, would quietly acquiesce in a scheme to remove the autonomy of Millburn’s overall excellent public school teachers and administrators, when he could instead have the courage of his convictions to speak out against it, like brave educational leaders (such as Carol Burris out on Long Island) have done.

I think your community would have been better served if you’d met your parents halfway by responding to their concerns about, for instance, the Common Core ELA standards’ emphasis on reading texts without considering their broader literary and historical contexts. You could have assuaged parents’ legitimate concerns by assuring them that Millburn wasn’t going to stop providing its students with a broad-based public education that includes analysis of texts that draws on the reader’s response rather than only Common Core analyses that ask students to divine the “author’s intent.”

Similarly, imagine if you’d relied on the historical knowledge I know still exists over there in Millburn to tell parents that back in the early 1980’s, we were solving math problems with number lines and manipulatives too — and that such techniques are not, popular wisdom aside, specific to “Common Core.”

But you won’t build credibility unless you’re also honest about any degradation of the elementary school social studies curriculum, or other district-level choices, such as limiting electives and specials offerings, that you may have felt were no choice at all because of the pressures — especially in a town like Millburn, where test scores are a major component of identity and self-worth — to ensure that your students scored well on the test du jour.

What I as a parent don’t welcome is feedback from a computer-based high-stakes (because it will, as you noted, be used to rank teachers, principals, administrators, districts, and schools) standardized test not tailored to what my child’s teachers have used their professional judgment to teach my child. I further object to forcing our professional teachers to tailor their teaching to such high-stakes tests, rather than allowing classroom teachers to design assessments of all sorts that best measure student achievement.

If my child was offered low-stakes and norm-referenced standardized tests once or twice during her educational career as a check-in (such as the CTBS tests I recall taking in the 4th grade at Deerfield and in the 8th grade, I think, at the Junior High), I’d welcome that feedback as two data points among many. But the “feedback” from the PARCC, which will, as you note, be used inappropriately to rank teachers, schools, and districts, is not worth the price. It’s too bad that you can’t see the distinction, and that you’ve instead chosen to lead your community by going public with a slippery slope argument that fails to draw a distinction between teacher-created in-class assessment and statewide high-stakes standardized tests.

Perhaps Millburn would have been better off if you could have benefited from the critical thinking required by an old-fashioned Millburn education? As a test-refusing parent, that old-fashioned progressive Millburn-style education is all I want for my kids.

 

Cowardly David Hespe Hid From The Parents Who Overwhelmed The NJBOE Today To Say No To PARCC

Today, somewhere in the neighborhood of one hundred parents, students, teachers, school board members, and other New Jersey professionals gathered at the River View Executive Building Complex in Trenton, New Jersey to prove just how out of touch New Jersey Comissioner of Education David Hespe is with New Jersey parents, students, teachers, and community members. In particular, as you may recall, David Hespe claimed that there was no opt-out or test refusal movement in New Jersey. Today, we proved him wrong

For those who don’t recall, on October 30, 2014, then Acting Commissioner Hespe issued guidance to school districts and charter school leaders in which he suggested (but did not require) that they institute punitive measures in an attempt to squelch New Jersey’s opt-out/test refusal movement before it got started. Hespe’s guidance backfired. Instead, he just pissed me — and countless other New Jersey parents — off. Today was our first chance to publicly speak out to Hespe’s sort-of bosses, the New Jersey State Board of Education (Hespe’s real boss is Governor Chris Christie, and there is no doubt in my mind that regardless of what the NJBOE does next, Hespe will continue to dance to PARCC’s tune until Governor Christie tells him to change course).

I arrived at around 10:40 this morning. The presentations to the Board were already in full swing, and the room was so full that I couldn’t even get standing room, so a friend and I waited out in the hall. The crowd continued to grow. I believe that 96 people were signed up to speak, but although a few speakers didn’t show, there were plenty of other non-speaking parents, teachers, community activists, and local school board members who had come to listen and/or show their support.

Unfortunately, NJBOE’s protocol is to divide public comment speakers among four different rooms, and to assign 1-2 NJBOE members to listen to comment in each room. Although this is far more efficient in terms of time (even then, there’s a 5 minute time limit, but enforcement was much less draconian than enforcement of the 3 minute time limit at our local Montclair Board of Education meetings), it’s unfortunate that the press, fellow attendees, and Board Members themselves do not get to hear more than a small sample of the total comments presented. Intentional or not, this diminishes the power of a large turnout of parents almost universally united around a common issue (here, opposition to PARCC and similar high-stakes standardized testing).

Here are both halves of Room A (with filming by the Asbury Park Press, as I understand it):

And here are both halves of Room B:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is Room C, where I testified:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here is Room D:
As you can see, among the four rooms, there were a LOT of citizens, most of whom, like me, took a day off from work because we think it is important that the NJ State Board of Education hear from parents and students about the mess the PARCC is creating in our schools. I don’t have accurate numbers, because many people came to be supportive without speaking, but I’d guess that the turnout easily exceeded 100 people.
Perhaps the most gratifying part of the event for me personally was to hear from the half-dozen or so children who’d come to testify. Almost all of them told me that they’d been inspired to come testify by my daughter Elizabeth Blaine’s public comment to the Montclair Board of Education a couple of weeks ago, which I haven’t mentioned also led to us getting interviewed (to my enduring political chagrin, but it’s nice that we have common ground on something) on Fox News’s Fox & Friends morning show. Just in Room C, we heard from a 10 year old girl, a 7th grade girl, and a 9th grade boy. All three were opposed to PARCC and the related test prep.
It was also terrific to get to meet — in person — many of the fellow New Jerseyeans I’d only connected with virtually through our shared opposition to these tests. I’m only sad that because of the four-room set up, I didn’t get to meet a number of other terrific leaders that I know were there.
But the major takeaway from today is that there is a strong — and rapidly growing — PARCC refusal movement in New Jersey. And it was great to see members of the press, from the pieces that already appeared on the Star Ledger and the Asbury Park Press website to the appearance of reporters from NJ101.5 to The Alternative Press – Edison (and there may well have been other reporters I wasn’t aware of). Go readd the Star Ledger and Asbury Park Press articles: their reporters didn’t pull any punches today. The bloggers were out in full force too. Here’s a piece from Marie Corfield that contains some stunning news: following the comments he listened to today, the President of the NJBOE apparently stated publicly that they know that they can’t force kids to take this test. I’ll add more blog links as I come across them.
Take note, Commissioner Hespe. You declared war on the parents and students of New Jersey back in October, but we are organizing, we are rallying, and we are fighting back. I did note, however, that you were too cowardly to sit in any of those rooms to hear for yourself what the parents and students of New Jersey are saying. I heard from more seasoned activists that this was par for the course from you — you apparently don’t deign to bother with public comment. That’s all part and parcel with the CCSS/PARCC playbook, of course, which generally fails to prioritize democratic values. I don’t think your disappearing act gives you cover to continue claiming that New Jersey doesn’t have a growing opt-out/test refusal movement.
Watch out, Commissioner Hespe: this is one war we’re going to win.
Finally, Governor Christie, with your PARCC study commission that has not yet publicly released the preliminary report that was due on December 31, 2014, don’t think your teflon governor act is going to allow you to escape blame for imposing PARCC and Common Core on the people of New Jersey. Trust me, from the brief foray I made into the world of Fox News, your national base isn’t impressed with your Common Core and PARCC cheerleading. Your national ambitious may well hang on this issue.
We lefties won’t rally behind you on this either.
Ironically, Governor Christie, through your minion David Hespe, you are a uniter: you are uniting the left and the right, the rich and the poor, the white and the black, the native English speakers and the English Language Learners, in shared opposition to your market driven education reform policies — including, but not limited to, your imposition of PARCC onto the people of New Jersey. It was a powerful thing to watch as the wealthy and privileged parents from Basking Ridge made common cause with parents from Newark. We don’t resemble each other in race, socioeconomic status, or political affiliation. But one thing was clear: no matter what our backgrounds, none of us want you to dismantle our public schools.
And we all agree on one thing: education is a necessary ingredient for democracy. A policy aimed at dismantling public schools is a policy aimed at devolving democracy into demagoguery.
We won’t forget. And we won’t — we can’t — let you win.

NJ Governor’s Task Force: Take the PARCC, I Did

 

Dear Members of Governor Christie’s PARCC Task Force:

I was one of those kids who always performed well on standardized tests. As a result of my scores, I was placed in gifted and talented programs, tracked into the honors and AP tracks (with their added boosts of inflated GPAs), and ultimately accepted to a highly selective liberal arts college. I wasn’t a particularly conscientious student, and I brought all sorts of hangups to my classwork (Carol Dweck is my hero, as I was definitely one of those kids who often didn’t complete assignments at all out of what I now believe was fear that I wouldn’t measure up to my “smart” reputation). But standardized tests saved me, and gave me a chance to “prove” my worth. You’d think I’d be the biggest cheerleader out there for our new, next-generation standardized tests. After all, standardized tests enabled me to skate through school until I finally matured enough to become a conscientious student while studying for my first graduate degree. Standardized tests served me well, so isn’t it time for me to return the favor?

Given that standardized tests have served me so well, I approached the Partnership for Assessment of College and Career Readiness (“PARCC”) sample problems and sample tests with an open mind. I first sat down to try some of the third through fifth grade sample math problems about a year ago. After that review, my major objection was to the technology, which makes solving math problems and justifying answers harder rather than easier. That is still true (although admittedly, the technology seems better than it was in January of 2014 when I first looked at these). But more recently, I first really sat with and reviewed the 4th grade English Language Arts practice test. My real concern now is with the English Language Arts tests.

I have a fourth grade daughter. She was first identified for our district’s gifted and talented program for English Language Arts in kindergarten, as she came into kindergarten reading chapter books. Her vocabulary and analysis skills remain quite advanced for a child of her age. And I can tell you that she retains the ability to imagine. Do you remember that, the ability to imagine with ease? Do you remember your childhood, when you could create imaginary worlds and people them with imaginary characters just by wishing them into existence? Do you remember building forts and castles that were as real to you as could be? For a moment, for just a moment, I ask you to call upon what is likely your long-stagnated power of imagination. Imagine yourself at nine or ten years old. Imagine your room, imagine your friends, and imagine your school work.

Then sit down. Keep yourself in your nine or ten year old mindset. Boot up your desktop, or power up your laptop, or unlock your iPad. Navigate to the PARCC website, at parcconline.org. Navigate to the 4th grade English Language Arts PARCC practice test. Open it in front of you, right now, as you read this comment. If you refuse to sit down to take the sample tests yourself, then with all due respect I submit that farcical as this task force — with its 6 week window to issue recommendations — might be, you are not meeting you obligation as member of this task force. Remember as you work through the 4th grade PARCC practice test that you are not your current self — you are still your nine or ten year old self.

As you take the 4th grade English Language Arts PARCC test, stay in the head of nine or ten year old you. Imagine your nine or ten year old self reading the first story and the first poem. Imagine your nine or ten year old self trying to answer the questions regarding what evidence supports the meaning of certain words. I bet your nine or ten year old self can probably figure out the first answer. Your nine or ten year old self might even be about to figure out what evidence from the text supports that first answer.

What about the kid who already knows the definition of the word drift?

Now move on to the setting question. Imagine your nine or ten year old self attempting to distinguish which choices describe the setting. Remember that this is a “gotcha” question, as all five possibilities are described in the story, but the answer key states that the “correct” answers are only those that pertain to the settings in Priya’s present, and not to those settings that form the background for her memories. Did your nine or ten year old self know that without me first revealing the answer? Does your nine or ten year old self think it’s fair or appropriate to expect our nine and ten year olds to intuit that distinction? If your nine or ten year old self thinks this is unfair, do you think your nine or ten year old self is going to keep devoting his or her best efforts to completing this test?

Apparently 4th graders are supposed to magically know that this question only refers to the present-day setting, not to the settings described in Priya’s memories.

But keep imagining. Imagine, as you progress through the multiple choice questions, your nine or ten year old self constantly having to try to scroll up and down to get to the proper portion of the story that relates to the question. As you imagine, remember, as my ten year old daughter reported to me from one of her class’s PARCC practice sessions, that if you accidentally click outside the testing box as you scroll, you will be locked out of the remainder of the test. Imagine the anxiety you feel that you might accidentally mis-click.

I could make a reasonable argument for either B or C. What about you?

Now imagine your nine or ten year old self attempting to distinguish the structural elements that delineate the poem versus those that delineate the short story. Imagine your nine or ten year old self trying to relate to and analyze Maya Angelou’s poetry. Imagine your nine or ten year old self trying to figure out if “descriptions” applies to both.

I could argue that rhythm applies to both. What about you?

Finally, you’re up to the first essay. Now imagine your nine or ten year old self, hunting and pecking for each letter on the keyboard, trying to draft an essay in which you identify the theme of the poem and the theme of the story, and then to show how the characters in the story and the speaker in the poem “show” the theme. What themes did your nine or ten year old self pick? What does your nine or ten year old self think it means for the themes to be “shown through the characters”? Did your nine or ten year old self truly sit down and try to type out a well-written and intelligent answer to this essay? Did your nine or ten year old self remember to do this one finger at a time, laboriously hunting and pecking around the keyboard, now looking for a “c,” and later looking for an “f”? Did your nine or ten year old self write to the best of his or her ability, or did your nine or ten year old self just push to put something — anything — down on the screen as his or her frustration grew with the infernally slow progress of his or her typewritten thoughts? Does your adult self remember the frustration of trying to get your thoughts out on paper before your fingers could keep up with your brain?

What themes did you pick? Does the question require you to pick one common theme, or should you pick two separate themes? And how is a 9 or 10 year old going 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,” anyway? Finally, if the PARCC consortium/Pearson actually believe that this question is appropriate for 9 and 10 year olds, why don’t they show us exemplars of actual student-written responses created under test-taking conditions?

Now, can you truly look me in the eye and tell me with a straight face that this is an appropriate task for our children?

Now, can you truly look me in the eye and tell me in all honesty that a child who cannot succeed on this task is not on track for college or a career?

Now, can you truly look me in the eye and tell me as if you mean it that preparing our children for this work is what their teachers should be spending the year doing?

Now, can you truly look me in the eye and tell me that your child self would believe that this test was fair, and would not give up before the end?

Now, can you truly look me in the eye and tell me with sincerity that years spent preparing for tests like these aren’t going to suck the joy, imagination, love of learning, and creativity out of children — and their teachers?

Can you truly?

My large extended family gathered this Thanksgiving for turkey and togetherness. At our gathering, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I spoke with my retired elementary school librarian aunt, with my aunt who works for a private tutoring center, with my college freshman cousin, and with my cousins whose kids are in third and fifth grade. They like my writing and they’re impressed by my activism, but none of them had really made the leap to think that my education activism is something that is really about them and their kids or their grandkids. They thought that their kids — like mine — are privileged enough to be good students in good public schools, and that these tests were really about the other kids, the kids without privileges and advantages, and that this fight had nothing to do with them.

But then I opened up my iPad. And I navigated to the PARCC fourth grade ELA sample test. And I made them try to take it. Each of them was appalled. Outraged. Infuriated.

So this is my request to this task force. Don’t issue a report or make recommendations until you sit down — publicly so that we know that you did it — and actually try taking these sample tests.  That is, to maintain any credibility at all, the task force must host — and participate in — Take the PARCC events across the state.

After that, you can move on to the other issues. After that, you can make recommendations.

After that, you can look at how often Pearson makes mistakes in its textbooks, and whether it’s reasonable to trust a company that makes such mistakes to design high-stakes tests that will eventually determine our students’ class placement and/or college graduation.

After that, you can look why it is categorically unfair — not to mention demoralizing — to have teachers’ performance reviews dependent on the outcomes of these tests.

After that, you can look at whether these tests improve children’s educational outcomes.

After that, you can look at whether the high-stakes nature of these tests encourages widespread cheating.

After that, you can look at whether failures on these tests contributes to destabilizing schools and communities that serve our most challenged children.

After that, you can look at whether the high-stakes testing culture discourages highly qualified teachers from entering (or, as I can tell you in my case, from returning to) the teaching profession.

After that, you can look at what portions of our high local property taxes and precious school budgets are now paid to the for-profit industry that has sprung up around these tests.

After that, you can look at whether these tests are doing more harm than good.

After that, you can look at whether these tests are forcing schools to narrow the curriculum, as the requirement to devote school hours and resources to teaching to these tests means that those school hours and resources are not being used for other, more precious, lessons.

After that, you can look at whether these tests are stamping out our children’s imaginations even earlier than we lost the abilities to easily access our own imaginations.

After that, you can look at whether Acting Commissioner David Hespe of the New Jersey Department of Education should be instructed to revise his PARCC “opt-out” guidance to ensure that the child of any parent who conscientiously objects to his or her child serving as a guinea pig for these tests will be provided with an alternate education experience during testing.

After that, you can look at whether — assuming we agree that this is the purpose of public school, which we don’t — student performance on these tests will tell teachers, parents, and members of the community anything whatsoever about whether these 9 and 10 year olds are on-track for college and careers.

But first — first — you need to take the tests.

Sincerely,

Sarah Blaine, B.A. in English (Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT), M.A.T. in Secondary English (University of Maine, Orono, ME), J.D. (Rutgers University School of Law–Newark, Newark, NJ)

Montclair Times Letter to the Editor

Good Morning and Happy Thanksgiving!  At the moment, in addition to all of the usual things I’m thankful for (family, including a house full of people and a huge 51 person family Thanksgiving feast this afternoon; snow; friends; and the good fortunes of good health, a decent job, and the good fortune to be able to live a pretty decent life), I’m thankful for my fellow citizens here in town who are speaking up against the takeover of our schools by high-stakes standardized testing (specifically, PARCC).  There were three letters to the editor in yesterday’s local paper, The Montclair Timesquestioning or opposing PARCC in our schools, including mine, which I have reposted below. The momentum is building locally to just say no to these high-stakes tests.  Especially in a town like Montclair, where our school board is appointed, not elected, the Opt-Out movement (and mass opt-out at the local level) is how we parents can, at a grassroots, local level, vote to say no to the test-focused realignment of our public schools.  Happy Thanksgiving, Acting Commissioner David Hespe.

To the Editor:

The name says it all: the new Partnership for Assessment of College and Career Readiness (“PARCC”) standardized test our district must offer to our 3rd-11th graders this spring reflects what its developers believe is the purpose of public school: to prepare children for college and careers.

They are wrong. The purpose of public education is — and should be — far more lofty: to educate inquisitive, analytical, and thoughtful citizens prepared to cast educated votes and participate in thoughtful analysis and debate should they be chosen as jurors. Readiness for college and careers is a by-product of that goal, but the goal is preparation for effective citizenship, not vocational training for employment.

I’ve been a Montclair schools parent for five years now, and while I applaud many of our public schools’ offerings, my older daughter’s school experience has been shockingly bereft of social studies education. Discussions with teachers and administrators reveal the reason: where the PARCC reigns supreme, the curriculum narrows. There is no time for social studies beyond map skills, an occasional out-of-context project, and the ubiquitous pre-digested and uncontroversial Scholastic News.

What happened to classic elementary school fodder such as current events, studies of world cultures, inquiries into genealogy and family history, research into Native American cultures, immersive units studying Ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, China, or Mesopotamia, and even the most basic American history? The often-whispered answer is that these units were casualties of the PARCC assessment: PARCC doesn’t test social studies, so our schools don’t teach it.

Montclair is one of the rare New Jersey suburbs with a rich history of refusing to standardize itself. Say no to off-the-shelf standardized education. Start demanding citizenship-focused public schools by refusing the PARCC.

Sincerely,

Sarah Blaine

Montclair (and Beyond), It’s Time For Action

Almost eight years ago, my family was trying to figure out where — in New Jersey — to buy a house and put down roots. I’m a Jersey girl, born and bred. I grew up in Short Hills, and attended the Millburn Public Schools for 13 years. As my local readers know, the Millburn Public Schools are consistently considered some of the highest performing schools in the state. However, in March of my senior year of high school, our family moved to Montclair. I commuted back to Millburn for the last few months until I graduated, but the following fall my brother began his sophomore year as a student at Montclair High School. At the end of that year, my family moved back to Short Hills, so that my brother graduated from Millburn High School.

When it came time for us to decide where to raise our kids, school quality was a primary factor as we tried to decide where to put down roots. We considered towns all over northern New Jersey. When talk turned to Montclair, I called my brother. I asked him to comment on the quality of his education in Millburn versus in Montclair’s far more diverse (and less highly ranked) public high school. He said:

“Do I think it’s possible I got into a slightly better college because we moved back to Short Hills? I don’t know, I guess that’s possible. But I learned more about life and people and how to get along in the world in my one year in the Montclair Public Schools than I learned in my twelve years in the Millburn Public Schools — and those are lessons I still carry with me every day.”

I was sold.

Almost eight years after that conversation, I now have two children enrolled in the Montclair Public Schools. Almost universally, I have been thrilled with my daughters’ teachers, who have been thoughtful, dedicated, experienced professionals.

But things are changing. Our test-taking focused national, state, and now local culture threaten the values that make Montclair unique: by insisting that all children must learn all things in lockstep, we deviate from education best practices. And by accepting — without question — a test-taking culture that imposes hours and hours of standardized testing on our 8, 9, and 10 year old children, without carefully reviewing these tests and pushing back as a community where we believe the tests are poorly designed, developmentally inappropriate, and leading to intense pressure to narrow curriculum to meet the tests’ demands, we are stepping away from the community values that make Montclair special. Our schools should be — and historically, through our all-magnet public school system, have been — tailored to meet our children’s needs, but now we seem to be under pressure to tailor our children to meet state and federal politicians’ and bureaucrats’ unrealistic expectations — and if we don’t, our schools will be declared failures.

So what can we — as parents — do?

First, we must educate ourselves. If you’re reading this, you know how to read and write. So take an hour. Sit down and work through the 3rd or 4th or 5th grade English Language Arts sample exam, which is available at parcconline.org/practice test . Think of yourself at 8, 9, or 10 years old. Ask yourself whether these questions strike you as fair, whether you could make arguments in favor of more than one of the responses, and whether you think that we as a community should allow our schools to be judged based on our students’ performances on these exams. Here is a sample essay question from the 4th Grade English Language Arts test to get you started:

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. Include specific details from the story and the poem to support your essay.

[As an aside, yes, we are asking 9 year olds to identify themes in two different stories (whether they are supposed to be the same theme or unrelated themes is unclear from the prompt), 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.” I have a masters in teaching high school English, and I’m not really sure what that means. Are they asking for examples of how the character’s/speaker’s actions demonstrate the theme(s)?]

Second, if, after reviewing the tests yourself, you find that you have concerns about these tests, think seriously about refusing these tests on behalf of your children. There are all sorts of Facebook groups for parents who are thinking of opting-out (for e.g., there’s one called Opt Out of Standardized Tests – New Jersey).  Talk with your children about this. You will start to hear that your kids will not be alone if they refuse these tests. There is strength — and power — in numbers. And I’ve found that the front-line educators in our schools will at least quietly applaud your efforts. The school culture may be such that they are not comfortable speaking up publicly, but they know right from wrong when it comes to educational practice. Mention that you’re thinking of joining the opt-out movement, and you will see eyes light up.

Third, speak up. Attend Board of Education meetings to make your voice heard. Talk with other parents. Write letters to the editor and op-eds. Call and write to your legislators. Contact the Board of Education — at both the state and local levels. Demand that our local Board of Education immediately issue its position regarding the opt-out/refusal movement, and demand that they make alternate learning opportunities available to our kids.

Fourth, suggestion alternates to a testing-focused culture. We can evaluate our kids’ learning in different — but more effective — ways. For instance, we can demand that our district evaluate kids’ progress toward achieving standards by asking schools to work with students and parents to compile portfolios of student work or require students to complete capstone-type projects at critical junctures. I taught high school in rural Maine at the turn of the millennium and we were able to make the portfolio and senior project approach work there. There is no reason we can’t manage the same here in Montclair. Standards-based assessment does not require standardized testing.

Fifth, demand detailed local coverage of Board of Education meetings. Many people (including me, but I was far from alone) spoke at the BOE meeting on Monday, November 17, 2014, but it is now more than a week later and the only coverage I saw in our local media (print and online) was a small Montclair Times article regarding a tiny subset of what was discussed (it discussed only the process by which the BOE can respond to questions posed at meetings). But The Montclair Times failed to do a comprehensive article regarding the meeting, and Baristanet, Patch, and The Alternative Press were completely silent.  [UPDATE: At 7:42 on Tuesday, November 25, 8 days after the meeting was held, Baristanet ran this story, which does attempt to summarize the public comment portion of the meeting, but still does not summarize the three reports to the BOE, nor the illuminating BOE discussion after public comment ended.]  We don’t know what’s happening unless we have journalists covering these issues.

And yes, Montclair Cares About Schools did a terrific email summarizing the last BOE meeting, but as much as I tend to agree with them on many issues, I recognize that this is an email from citizens summarizing their point of view, and that while I think it was a quite accurate summary, I’m not sure this was always true of all of their characterizations of BOE materials in the past, and more generally speaking, the MCAS email doesn’t have the same authority as an unbiased news source that our local news outlets at least theoretically have.  I can’t find a link to the email on their blog, but the Montclair Cares About Schools blog, Montclair Voices, does contain a bunch of the public comments made at last week’s meeting.  Similarly, our Montclair teachers’ points of view (and a bunch of their public comments to the BOE last week) are reflected on our teachers’ new blog, Montclair Education Matters.

High quality — and diverse — schools are what brought many of us to Montclair, and they are what keep us here. We need to unite as a community to reject externally-imposed policies (whether imposed by NJDOE or the USDOE) that stand between our children and the well-rounded educations our children deserve — and that our teachers know best how to provide.  And that includes educating and supporting our local school board members so that they have the knowledge, community support, and tools to stand with us at the front lines of saying no to so-called “education reform” that is bad for our children, bad for our schools, and bad for our community.

BOE: Provide the District’s PARCC Opt Out Policy

Update:  The local access channel was able to post the BOE meeting on its website today.  I am not computer savvy enough to figure out how to take a clip of my 3 minutes, but I can tell you that I start at the 2 hour and 30 minute mark on this link:

http://vp.telvue.com/player?id=T01411&video=217601

If someone knows how to grab my snippet and put it on YouTube, I’ll link it that way instead.

Original Post:

Here is the text of my prepared remarks for tonight’s local Board of Education meeting.  I think I deviated a litte bit — but not very much — from what’s written here.  If I can figure out how to get a snippet of the video, I will add that to this post (embarrassing as that might be).  Please note that my comments were limited to 3 minutes.

I am here today to ask the District to formally state — in writing to all parents — its policy regarding how children who are refusing the PARCC exams will be accommodated.

I attended the District’s October 23rd PARCC Family Presentation, where Gail Clarke was asked to comment regarding the district’s opt-out or refusal policy for the PARCC exams. She stated that no policy was in place because the State DOE had not yet issued its guidance regarding opt-out decisions.

A week later, on October 30th, the New Jersey Department of Education issued “guidance” to school districts stating that districts were under no obligation to provide educational alternatives, and suggested — but did not require — that districts update their attendance and discipline policies to address PARCC opt-out issues.

NJDOE’s guidance is at odds with Montclair’s prior policy.

So, given the conflict between Montclair’s NJASK opt-out policy and the State’s recent guidance, I am here to ask what Montclair’s policy will be for handling PARCC refusals. And, as a parent, I am here to urge you to adopt an accommodating and humane policy.

I’ve reviewed the 3rd and 4th practice exams and sample questions on the PARCC website. I found many questions confusing and developmentally inappropriate — frankly, the “gotcha” feel of these questions reminded me of the New Jersey Bar Exam.

I am also concerned that we are asking students as young as 8 to compose essay responses on computers when the district hasn’t provided comprehensive typing instruction.

But I am most concerned about the narrowing of the curriculum in response to testing pressures: in particular, I worry about how little social studies education my 4th grader has seen compared to what I’d studied — in a NJ public school — by her age. Where are the units studying mythology, genealogy, Native American culture, American history, and the ancient world? Our district’s lack of social studies education is a sad disappointment — and a direct result of our testing-focused culture: Social Studies gets short shrift because it is not on the test. Elementary school social studies should be more than “map skills.”

I try to avoid making decisions without access to all of the facts, which is why I’ve reviewed the PARCC sample materials in depth. So before I make a final decision regarding the PARCC exams, I would like to review the District’s PARCC opt-out policy.

This is an urgent matter, given that my daughter reports that her class has already lost at least 6 periods of instructional time to PARCC preparation, including last week when her class was asked to attempt an End of Year math practice test before the children had been presented with many of the topics tested.

Thank you.

Hespe’s Flawed Analogy

In an article in today’s New Jersey Spotlight, Acting Commissioner Hespe confirmed that my initial analysis of his guidance was spot-on. He said:

“A good parallel is compulsory attendance. Parents don’t have the option, students are supposed to go to school. The same with [opting out], they don’t have that option.”

But it is the Acting Commissioner’s analogy that is flawed. Parents — who have the right to direct their children’s educations — may opt-out of school (and related testing) by homeschooling their children without fear of negative consequences for the children or themselves. See N.J.S.A. 18A:38-25. It’s been more than a decade since I took Constitutional Law and I haven’t done detailed research on this (see my prior disclaimer), but as I recall, Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925), was pretty unequivocal in holding that parents’ rights trump states’ rights when it comes to the education of their children. It’s not unreasonable to believe that courts would be willing to hold that parents’ rights to direct their children’s educations, as enshrined, inter alia, in Pierce v. Society of Sisters and N.J.S.A. 18A:38-25, might well extend to refusing PARCC without giving up our right to a public school education for our children.

I believe, at a fundamental and basic level, that strong public schools are necessary for democracy. NJDOE, through Acting Commissioner Hespe, perhaps unintentionally, or perhaps by design, is attempting to force opt-out parents into choosing between abandoning public schools (as students at private school and homeschooled students are exempt from PARCC testing requirements) or allowing their children to sit for developmentally inappropriate tests. This isn’t a choice parents should be forced to make — and as the Supreme Court held way back in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, when it comes to directing children’s education, parents’ rights trump the state’s rights.

NJDOE’s Declaration of War

I am an opinionated blogger, and I blog here in my personal capacity. Unlike some other bloggers doing excellent work in the world of education policy and beyond, I do not claim to be a citizen journalist objectively reporting the news. I’m just a mom with a keyboard and opinions. I occasionally manage to put my thoughts into words as I explore education policy from my perspective as a public school parent. And although I am an attorney, I do not pretend to be blogging in my professional capacity, and I certainly do not intend any of my musings here as legal advice.

That being said.

That being said.

That being said, New Jersey’s Acting Commissioner of its Department of Education, David C. Hespe, appears to have declared war on parents and children who oppose his standardized testing policies.

Specifically, today the Acting Commissioner issued guidance to chief school administrators, charter school lead persons, school principals, and district and school test coordinators regarding “Student Participation in the Statewide Assessment Program.”  Go read it yourself.

But here’s my synopsis:

This. Means. War.

Acting Commissioner Hespe has declared war on us — and our children.

Acting Commissioner Hespe advocates punishing children for their parents’ political opposition to NJDOE’s destructive over-testing policies.

NJDOE has crossed the line.

Hespe says:

We have received a number of inquiries regarding the ability of parents and students to choose to not participate in the statewide assessment program, including the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessment. In an effort to clarify school district responsibility in this regard, the Department is providing the following guidance.

First, I want to take a moment to celebrate each and every person who has forced the Acting Commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Education, David Hespe, to respond to the opt-out/refusal movement.

Thank you for fighting back against the over-testing of our children along with its predictable results: test-prep focused classrooms practices and narrowing of curriculum (just once, I’d like to see social studies instruction at my daughter’s school that is something more than map skills). There is something wrong when our 9 year old fourth graders are expected to sit for more testing than our state’s aspiring attorneys must take to become licensed to practice law. (A New Jersey fourth grader is expected to sit for 10 hours of PARCC testing plus 90 minutes of NJ ASK science testing, for a total of 11 hours and 30 minutes of testing. The New Jersey Bar Exam is a total of 11 hours and 15 minutes of testing.)

I am still in the process of educating my fourth grader about the pros and cons of the PARCC testing, and as a parent of a high-functioning and inquisitive fourth grader who does not suffer from test anxiety, I am letting her have input into the decision our family is going to make regarding whether she will be sitting for these tests this spring, rather than forcing my decision on her. After all, this is her education, and she is the one who will ultimately suffer any consequences. As much as I’d dearly love to just refuse on her behalf, I won’t do so unless she is on board. So for now, our family remains on the fence.

Second, Hespe’s key argument supporting testing is: “Federal funding of key education programs is dependent upon districts meeting [No Child Left Behind’s Adequate Yearly Progress] requirement.” Really? That’s the best you’ve got?

Note that Hespe does not identify which key education programs’ funding is contingent on our kids taking these tests. As FairTest.Org notes, “In a state with a waiver, a ‘priority’ school must set aside 5-15% of its federal Title I and II funding to use in state-approved programs in the school. The money is not ‘lost.’ It generally may be used for various school improvement efforts.” Here’s the link. New Jersey is a waiver state, so I’d love to know exactly what federal funding the Acting Commissioner believes my daughter’s school will lose if she and more than 5% of her peers refuse the test. I have not done the research myself, but from the limited reading I have done, it appears that this is a toothless threat.

Third, here is Acting Commissioner Hespe’s actual guidance — or, more accurately, his declaration of war:

In accordance with the above, State law and regulations require all students to take State assessments. For the 2014-2015 school year, the PARCC assessment will replace the prior statewide assessments – the NJASK in grades 3-8 and HSPA in high school; as such, all students shall take the PARCC assessment as scheduled. Since the PARCC assessment is part of the State required educational program, schools are not required to provide an alternative educational program for students who do not participate in the statewide assessment. We encourage all chief school administrators to review the district’s discipline and attendance policies to ensure that they address situations that may arise during days that statewide assessments, such as PARCC, are being administered.

In short, Hespe says:

  • State law requires all students to “take” State assessments;
  • PARCC is required by the State, so schools are not required to provide an alternative education program for students who do not participate in the statewide assessment; and
  • NJDOE “encourages” all chief school administrators to review district discipline and attendance policies “to ensure that they address situations that may arise during days that statewide assessments, such as PARCC, are being administered.”

Let’s take Hespe’s Declarations of War one at a time.

(1) State law requires all students to “take” State assessments and “all students shall take the PARCC assessment as scheduled.”

Or what?

Or what, Acting Commissioner Hespe?

At the end of the day, no one at my daughter’s school can force her to click a mouse, type on a keyboard, or pick up a pencil.

So I say, bring it. It doesn’t take a Ph.D to realize that it is fundamentally wrong to base education policy on essays our fourth graders are required to type — when they’ve never taken typing classes. Last spring when I began exploring these tests, I watched my daughter struggle for over 7 minutes to input the answer to a math question she’d solved in 30 seconds.  I’m a mom and a former teacher, and I see no value whatsoever in tests that measure my 4th grader’s computer savvy rather than her academic skills.

(2) PARCC is required by the State, so schools are not required to provide an alternative education program for students who do not participate in the statewide assessment.

Last spring, as New York’s opt out movement alone grew to more than 60,000 students, a lot was written about so-called “sit and stare” policies. See, e.g., this piece from The Answer Sheet blog at The Washington Post

But unless I’m fundamentally misreading this memo, Hespe appears to be encouraging districts to adopt sit and stare policies in an effort to intimidate parents into not opting their kids out.

Bring it on, Acting Commissioner Hespe. Bring it.

It appears to me that you’re taking a page from your boss’s playbook by telling those of us who disagree with you to “sit down and shut up.”

It appears to me, Acting Commissioner Hespe, that you’re trying to bully those of us who do not see the value in your precious PARCC tests by punishing our children.

That’s low, Acting Commissioner. Really low. And do you know what? You don’t intimidate me. All you’ve done is piss me off. And Acting Commissioner, I’ll tell you this: pissing off parents — and voters — like me is probably not the way to ensure the long-term success of your policies. You were just a faceless bureaucrat. Now I want to get you fired. You deserve no less for attempting to bully parents by punishing our children.

(3) NJDOE “encourages” all chief school administrators to review district discipline and attendance policies “to ensure that they address situations that may arise during days that statewide assessments, such as PARCC, are being administered.”

I’m not certain what Acting Commissioner Hespe is getting at here, but I suspect his purpose may be to suggest that districts should implement attendance and discipline policies that will impose punitive consequences on children whose parents opt them out of these tests.

Is Acting Commissioner Hespe really suggesting that parents who keep their children home during testing are risking their children’s promotion to the next grade as a result of too many absences?

Is Acting Commissioner Hespe really suggesting that school districts should implement discipline policies that will impose punishments on children who refuse testing?

Would Acting Commissioner Hespe attempt to link state funding to local districts with the local districts’ willingness to implement punitive measures against those children whose parents refuse PARCC on their behalf?

The next step for me will be to see how my district interprets this guidance. Will it opt to provide alternate educational experiences and keep its promise that no academic decisions will be made based on this year’s test results?

But one thing seems certain. Acting Commissioner Hespe is scared. Really scared. He’s scared that the PARCC consortium is coming apart at the seams.  He’s scared that his precious testing regime is about to implode before it gets started. He’s scared that his tests aren’t going to generate enough data about enough kids to satiate the data monsters.

And he’s terrified of the growing opt out movement. So Hespe’s doubled down on PARCC. First he linked high school graduation to PARCC testing. Now he’s threatening parents and children who refuse PARCC. Defensiveness is rarely a sign of strength.

So as awful as this guidance is, it tells me that we’re winning. In a post-Citizens United world, there’s still some hope for grassroots activism and organizing. We are winning the war to do away with excessive and punitive standardized testing. And, of course, the whole education reform movement relies on its standardized testing foundation.

All the Acting Commissioner did with this policy was to galvanize me, for one, to fight harder. Who’s with me?

P.S.  For a terrific analysis of the Acting Commissioner’s magical thinking with respect to the supposed benefits of PARCC vs. the now apparently fatally flawed NJASK/HSPA (the portion of his letter I didn’t get around to analyzing), check out Peter Greene’s terrific piece over at Curmudgucation.  Will Hespe’s Magical PARCC promise my kids ponies?  What about unicorns?

Questioning the Test (Or, My List of Skeptical but Respectful Questions Regarding PARCC)

My daughters’ school district is holding a series of “PARCC Family Presentations” over the next few weeks. The presentation targeted at parents of third through fifth grade students is set for this Thursday. In preparation for the presentation, the district has — to its credit — announced that it is soliciting questions regarding the PARCC assessments. So I sat down and generated a list of my current questions. Then I went to submit them via the District’s Google Docs form, and promptly discovered that the district’s form imposes a 500 character limit per subject.

As you will see below, after spending the past year or so educating myself about the PARCC, my questions far exceed 500 characters so I emailed my questions directly to our district’s Chief Academic Officer. I really hope that we get some honest answers to these questions. Here are my hopefully skeptical but respectful questions (slightly edited to take out the district-specific language I used in my email), plus a few additional questions that I thought of after I sent my email. Please suggest additions to my list, comment on my list of questions, and let me know if your school districts are holding similar information sessions. If your district is holding similar sessions, please attend one so that you can learn what your district is saying and ask your own questions. Of course, if my concerns mirror yours, please feel free to adapt my questions for use in your own school district.

Most of all, even if your children are not third through eleventh graders, please educate yourselves about these tests, and think critically about where our schools are headed now that many states, including but not limited to my state, New Jersey, have doubled-down on implementing high-stakes standardized testing for our students.  

PARCC FAMILY PRESENTATIONS — QUESTIONS

I. Testing Administration

1. What will happen if I decide to have my child refuse PARCC testing? Will there be consequences for my child, his/her teacher, and/or his/her school? Will my child be forced to “sit and stare,” or will s/he be provided with an alternate educational experience?

2. How many hours of testing for 3rd graders? 4th graders? 5th graders? How much total time per school will be spent on a testing schedule given that all children in the grade level cannot test simultaneously? Will children miss their [elective] classes during PARCC administration, even if they themselves are not testing? What impact will testing have on the [elective] programs at [my daughter’s school]? Is [the technology teacher] teaching fewer technology electives than in the past due to PARCC preparation?

3. Why is it necessary (from a pedagogical perspective) for our students to be tested in both March and May?

4. What in-district adults are proctoring and reviewing the PARCC tests to ensure that the test questions are not poorly worded, ambiguous, and/or that correct answer choices are provided for multiple choice tasks? Will those people be able to speak out if questions are poorly worded or if no correct answer choices are provided, or are they going to be required to agree to gag orders before they can administer the tests?

II. Scoring and Reporting

1. Will a school or schools in this school district face in-district consequences (e.g., steps taken to dismantle a school’s magnet theme) now or in the future as a result of its performance on PARCC?

2. I understand that although New York is not a PARCC state, it has been giving Common Core aligned assessments for two years now, and the passing rate has dropped from over 60% to under 30%. What percentage of New Jersey/[our local district] children are expected to pass PARCC in 2014?

3. What data do you expect to receive from PARCC that will be available to classroom teachers to guide instruction? When will PARCC scores and results be available?

4. Who scores the subjective portions of the PARCC tests? What are those people’s qualifications?

5. Will PARCC results be part or all of the criteria used to identify [gifted and talented] students going forward? What happens if my child was previously identified as a [gifted and talented] student, but loses that designation because s/he lacks the technology skills to succeed on the PARCC assessments?

III. Technology Skills

1. What steps are you taking to ensure that our 8, 9, and 10 year old students have the typing skills necessary to compose essays with keyboards? How much time is being spent on preparing children to acquire the skills necessary to master the PARCC interface? Is the preparation process uniform throughout the district? If it is not, doesn’t this mean that we won’t be able to make apples-to-apples comparisons of student scores even across the district?

2. Have you done comparisons of the time on task necessary for students to answer PARCC sample questions with paper and pencil versus with computers? If so, what were the results?

3. What happens if computers break, internet service goes down, or the children encounter other technological difficulties during their testing windows?

IV. Content Areas

1. I have seen virtually no evidence of specific social studies instruction (stand alone ELA worksheets with “social studies themes” do not count in my book) and very little science instruction since [our district] started implementing Common Core and preparing for the PARCC assessments. What steps are you taking to ensure that our children are learning the history and civics necessary to become informed citizens and voters?

2. Will students lose points on math assessments if they do not use specific Common Core strategies to solve problems (e.g., performing multiplication the traditional way rather than drawing an array)? My child lost full credit on the following Envisions math test problem this year: “Write a multiplication sentence for 3 + 3 + 3 + 3 + 3 = 15” because she wrote 3 x 5 = 15 instead of 5 x 3 = 15. Will children be losing points on PARCC for failure to make meaningless distinctions such as this one?

 

V. Additional Questions I Should Have Asked

1. What effect do you expect the PARCC test to have on our district’s efforts to close the achievement gap? Given the wealth disparity — and resulting inequities in home access to technology — in our district, aren’t these assessments likely to magnify our district’s pre-existing achievement gap?

2. What preparations are you making to care for our children’s emotional and social health during these tests (and when the results become available), given the likelihood that far more students are going to struggle with — and fail — these tests than struggled with and failed the NJ ASK?

and finally

3.  How can it be developmentally appropriate for our 9 year old fourth grade students to spend 10 hours on PARCC testing when many adults cannot handle the stress of the 11 hour and 15 minute New Jersey Bar Exam?

UPDATE:

VI.  Additional Questions Suggested by Readers — Please also see the additional excellent questions in the Comments section, and feel free to add your own!

1.  What demographic information will be collected in connection with our students taking this test?  Who will this demographic data be shared with, and what controls are in place to make sure our students’ demographic data isn’t sold for marketing or other purposes?  

2.  Will some or all of the tests be made public after testing so that we, the community, can review the questions and the sample/model answers and so that our children’s teachers can actually use the assessment data to guide classroom instruction?  In the absence of such a release, what value does the assessment data provide to classroom teachers?

3.  What costs — in addition to the one million dollars the district allocated to capital spending this year to support technology upgrades — are associated with preparing our students and their teachers for the PARCC tests?  What portion of our personnel budget is attributable to time spent on preparing for and proctoring these exams?

Pearson’s Apology

For everyone who read and commented on my prior post, Pearson’s Wrong Answer, first of all, thank you.  The response has been overwhelming.  Second, I just wanted to take a moment to let you know that my post did eventually percolate its way to Pearson, and a Pearson representative named Brandon Pinette appears to have left a comment on the blog post today:

Pearson did make an error on the specific quiz question in a lesson in the Envision Math textbook and we sincerely apologize for this mistake. We corrected the error for future editions of Envision, but failed to adjust the question in editions currently in the field. We owe it to our students and teachers to ensure these types of errors do not happen in the future, and are committed to adapting new protocols to fix mistakes before they happen. Trust in our products and services is key and we have to earn it every day with students, teachers and parents.

Thank you,
Brandon Pinette
Pearson

It seems only fair to make sure that this specific apology for this specific mistake gets highlighted more than as one of almost a hundred comments to a blog post.  

However, from the overwhelming responses and comments this blog post has received (here, on Facebook, and on Valerie Strauss’s blog at The Washington Post, The Answer Sheet) one thing seems clear: this is not an isolated problem (either for Pearson or for textbook and academic material publishers in general).  Because my child is slated to take the Pearson-developed PARCC tests this spring, my focus is on Pearson.  Mistakes in other textbooks are annoying, but my specific concern about Pearson is its vertical integration throughout the education world: i.e., Pearson writes the textbooks (mistakes and all), Pearson writes and grades the PARCC tests, Pearson provides remedial programs for students who fail the Pearson-generated tests, and Pearson writes the GED tests for those students who drop out of high school.

I encourage anyone who finds other mistakes in Pearson materials to take photos of the specific mistakes, and then Tweet them with the hashtag #PearsonsWrongAnswers.  

I am glad that Pearson is “committed to adapting new protocols to fix mistakes before they happen” and that Pearson recognizes that “Trust in our products and services is key and we have to earn it every day with students, teachers and parents.”  

But I still think that we need to continue to hold Pearson accountable.  

Many commenters have pointed out, with validity, that there is supposed to be statistical analysis of standardized test questions, and that mistaken questions on the standardized tests will be thrown out as invalid.  I am sure that they are correct that this does happen.  However, with tests as high-stakes as these, I am not sure that this is a sufficient response.  

For instance, imagine if this was a standardized test question.  I could easily see a 9 or 10 year old test taker, who figures out that the correct answer is 546, struggle as she looks at multiple choice responses such as (a) 78 (b) 130 (c) 500 or (d) 63.  And I think that some kids are more likely than others to be distracted by (and therefore waste time on) issues generated by mistakes such as this one.  As a result, on a high-stakes timed standardized test, the time wasted on the wrong questions like this one may artificially deflate a child’s score.  And similarly, the child who gets the intended but mistaken correct answer (in this case, 78 miles, which would be correct if Curtis walked 3 miles a day for 26 DAYS) may obtain an artificial advantage because she isn’t bogged down by catching and mulling over the mistake.  Throwing out the specific question will not address these issues.  

And as long as we are addressing comments, for those commenters who think my post was an overreaction, so be it.  Perhaps it was.  But as noted above, Pearson has an awful lot of vertical integration throughout the education market, and Pearson’s employee himself admitted that “Trust in our products and services is key.” 

Pearson has to earn my trust.  And since its materials are at the heart of my children’s math education, I will be doing my best to look over its shoulder now, as much as anything as part of my decision-making process concerning whether I think I should join the movement to refuse or opt out of its standardized tests.  

Thank you all again.