The public portion of our local school board meeting ran from 7:40 p.m. until 12:40 a.m. last night. Included on the agenda was a first reading of a policy (a copy is attached below) to require the district to provide educationally appropriate and non-punitive alternatives for kids whose parents refuse to allow them to take the PARCC tests. The policy will not be voted on until the next meeting, which is not until January 26, 2015. My 10 year old 4th grader attended the meeting with me, and was the first speaker when public comment began around 9:45 p.m. (She waited patiently and listened intently to a good chunk of the prior two hours of the meeting — and when she got bored, she read her book.)
Please watch the VIDEO of her describing her experience with PARCC preparation. She speaks for herself quite eloquently, if I do say so myself!
1. I want to thank our local micronews blog, Baristanet, for promptly covering last night’s meeting, with its article comprehensively describing the Board meeting live on its site by this morning. I’m glad that there was real — and relatively real-time — press coverage of last night’s meeting. We can’t be an informed community without reliable journalists to report the news. The Montclair Times and The Alternative Press -Montclair have now filed stories as well. I am really hopeful that given this prompt response last month’s lack of full coverage was an aberration. Thank you to our local press — your job is critical.
2. This morning Elizabeth’s story appeared on Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post education blog, The Answer Sheet. I want to give Valerie the credit she deserves for this piece. In early November, we took a family trip to Washington, D.C. As some regular readers of this blog know, Valerie, who is a super-hero in the movement to push back against the current so-called “education reform” movement, published my second blog post ever — and a bunch of my blog posts since that time — on The Answer Sheet. Coincidentally, it turned out that The Washington Post was on the route from our DC hotel to our nearest Metro stop. I sent Valerie an email saying that it was a thrill to see the HQ of the newspaper that had published some of my work, and she graciously offered to give us a tour of the newsroom. She came in on a Sunday and met us to give us our tour (my youngest adores her because she suckered Valerie into letting her abscond with a pink flamingo ornament from Valerie’s desk) and, as you can imagine, we talked education, teaching, policy, and politics.
Elizabeth was an active participant in that conversation. I think Valerie was blown away when, after she’d told a story about using her role as a journalist to expose an inequitable situation faced by a boy with a physical disability in the DC schools, Elizabeth asked, “Do you think that the DC or the Philadelphia schools are worse these days?” So Valerie encouraged Elizabeth to write about PARCC and PARCC test prep from a student’s perspective. On our way home, Elizabeth was composing the first paragraph of what eventually became last night’s public comment to the Board. She’s been working on it on and off ever since. But when we learned this weekend that the Board had placed the PARCC parental refusal on its agenda, Elizabeth buckled down and finished the last bits of her piece. My involvement was to add the explanatory note that appears in the WaPo piece, to fix about 3 typos, and to give Elizabeth a brief mini-lesson on embedded quotation marks.
After she finished, she read it aloud a few times, and we timed her and discussed some tips for public speaking. I honestly wasn’t sure whether she would actually speak or not until she went up there. And I couldn’t be prouder of my kid! I think that last night demonstrated, far more comprehensively and concretely than any standardized test possible could, that Elizabeth is on track for college, career, and, most importantly, active and thoughtful participation in civic life. I cannot begin to thank her teachers enough for their role in helping her to grow into the amazing little girl she is and continues to become. I don’t need a standardized test to tell me that they’re doing wonderful work — but I can and will continue to do what’s within my power to ensure that they can do their work as unfettered as possible by mandates from those, such as Arne Duncan, David Hespe, and Penny MacCormack, with little or no classroom teaching experience.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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 — 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.
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)
Peter Greene’s recent blog post “Meaning and Standardized Writing” is spot on. As Greene writes, the problem with a great deal of student writing is that it’s motivated by the need to complete the assignment and be graded, rather than by addressing the problem that all good writing seeks to solve, which Greene conceptualizes as: “How can I communicate what I want to communicate in a meaningful way?”
Greene then juxtaposes good writing with standardized-test writing:
The standardized testing approach to writing, both in “writing” assessments and in the open-ended response format now creeping into other tests, gets virtually nothing right at all. Nothing. The goal is itself a meager one– let’s just measure student technical skill– and even that is not measured particularly well. Test writing is the opposite of good writing. The problem the student is trying to solve is not “How do I create a meaningful expression” but “How do I provide what the test scorer wants to see” or “What words can I use to fill up this space.”
Tonight, my 4th grader brought me her ELA (English Language Arts) homework to review. Here’s the prompt (or, as Greene rightly notes, the “stimulus”):
First of all, I’m not sure why it’s the “SEEC” method rather than the SEEEEECC method, but hey, what do I know? Now I am a lawyer, and the SEEC (“SEEEEECC”) method reminds me very much of the law school writing formula, IRAC (Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion). I don’t think that rules of thumb for structuring writing are terrible for writers embarking on their first efforts at a new kind of analytical or expository task, but writing teachers must ensure that their students understand that writing rules are made to be broken, and that slavish adherence to writing rules will lead to kludgy, painful-to-read prose.
The problems with standardized writing assessments, however, are two-fold. First, many writers never make that leap away from the SEEC or IRAC rules, so that their writing is so rule-oriented that it’s boring, inflexible, and painful to read (trust me, I’ve read my share of painful legal briefs, although I’ve also read some really outstanding — and engaging — legal prose). Second, the rubrics (or scoring matrices) reward strict adherence to the rule, which again reinforces the problematic idea that good writing is writing that adheres to rules.
Here’s my fourth grader’s response to the SEEC-based writing prompt (used with her permission):
It’s fine and it’s technically correct, but Greene’s point shines through: there is no question that this paragraph is not a paragraph in which my 10 year old is communicating what she wants to communicate in a meaningful way. Rather, she is — as Greene predicts — writing to answer the wrong questions. Her writing is dull and lifeless because she is asking herself “what can I write to satisfy this assignment” or “how can I fill up this piece of paper” or “what can I use to fill in five paragraph-sized blanks,” and, as Greene notes, “these are all the wrong question to start with.”
On the other hand, there has been a lot of “authentic” writing — i.e., writing that answers the “correct” question of how can I communicate what I want to communicate — going on in my house recently (and I don’t mean my blogging, although of course that’s exactly what my blogging is — my attempt to communicate to the world my point of view regarding the “reforms” to our education system).
The weekend before Thanksgiving, my daughters started playing “The Letter Game.” My oldest daughter started writing letters to my younger daughter. My younger daughter kept bringing them to me to help her read them, but what I didn’t realize at the time (I might have been busy blogging) was that my kindergartener was writing decipherable notes (full of invented spellings, of course) back in response to her sister. For about two hours, the two of them were communicating through the written word. As they were wrapping up their game, I realized what had been going on, and was amazed by the little one’s notes. (Unfortunately, the big one managed to throw them away while she was on a cleanup frenzy the following day, so I can’t show them to you here.)
To me, that was an extraordinary breakthrough. It was my little one’s first authentic experience with using written language to express what she wanted to communicate. Over the long weekend, a lot more authentic writing happened in my house. The girls (my daughters and their close friend) began writing “newspapers” documenting happenings in the imaginary world they’d conjured up. Here are a few examples:
And my little one decided to start “blogging.” Here are some of her “Blog Posts”:
The newspapers and the “blog posts” are writing that these kids generated for themselves, to communicate what they want to say in a meaningful way.
Do you see the difference between writing that is authentic, or, as Greene says, between writing that communicates what the author wants to communicate in a meaningful way and writing that attempts to do nothing more than fill the page, follow a formula, or give the exam-reader what the exam-reader is looking to find? A writing teacher who knows his students (like Greene), is best situated to design writing assignments that will facilitate an environment in which students learn to effectively communicate what they want to communicate in a meaningful way. But when the stimuli-drafters are far removed from the classroom, the students, and their teachers, and when the stimuli ask students to react formulaically to the prompt, we suck the joy out of writing, out of school, and out of teaching.
I don’t blame my daughter’s ELA teacher. I’ve spoken with her in detail, and I know how much she tries to slip authentic and joyful assignments between the inevitable test prep. I know how much more she wants for the kids, but how hamstrung she is by the district’s (and PARCC’s) demands. But to me, the juxtaposition of the joyful, authentic writing happening without adult intervention in my house against the dry and lifeless writing my daughter did for school tonight illustrate better than anything I can write exactly what’s wrong with our high-stakes test driven culture, and the all-business ELA Common Core State Standards that accompany that test-driven, automaton-producing educational ideal.
I know detractors might argue that these are two different types of writing: analytical writing versus creative writing. But that’s exactly my — and I believe Greene’s — point. When writing is authentic and meaningful, expository and analytical writing is both intellectually meaningful and creative (check out your average New Yorker article). But when formulas and mnemonics rule, writing becomes about spitting words out onto paper, and not about contributing meaning to our human endeavor on this lonely little planet. Why on earth are we allowing test-driven school culture (especially one that attempts to standardize and test writing, of all things) to squelch the meaning out of our kids’ words?
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.
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.
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.
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:
If someone knows how to grab my snippet and put it on YouTube, I’ll link it that way instead.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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?
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.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?