Sunday, February 22, 2015

P.A.R.C.C: Failure by Design?

In New Jersey, we're breaking in a new standardized test this year, known as the P.A.R.C.C. As with most standardized tests, or anything new in general, the level of anxiety in my school is high.

There are aspects I like. The Research Simulation Task involves reading, viewing instructional videos, analyzing pictures and graphs, and using the information to synthesize an evidence-based conclusion. It's an honest preview of what students will have to do in college. And barring bugs, the fact that the test is computer-based will save tons of wasted paper.

There are aspects I'm reserving judgment about. I don't know for a fact that every radical, union-busting corporate politician is going to use what's likely to be an iffy first year of results to pursue an anti-education agenda. My guess is they'll try, but I don't want to assume people will fall for it. The first year of a new test is traditionally the worst, results-wise. In fact, the state's perceived need for a new test is based in part on widespread mastery of the old one.

I don't know for a fact that my board and administrators will choose to over-react and micro-manage or if they'll feel forced to do so. I refuse to freak out ahead of time. Unlike some of my teaching years, this year I can say I have administrators who have all taught tested subjects for a substantive period of time, so at least they critique from an informed position.

I can say I feel bad for districts who don't currently have supportive or sane administrators. That type of boss will no doubt use the first year speed bump to scare some great people out of the profession. I also feel bad for teachers in districts that don't have the advantages of mine. My students come to school fed, clean, healthy, and (mostly) rested. This isn't the case everywhere.

I would be ecstatic if the results of the test were prescriptive for the student. If the state is willing to tell us a student's weaknesses and offer feedback or a plan of action for next year based on this year's results, that would go a long way toward getting teachers on board. Imagine performance-based cluster groups to teach mini-units based on student needs. Imagine if the test results were used the right way, for the long-term benefit of each student taking it. On the other hand, if it's just a random bad score with no information about why, we should seriously consider helping parents organize mass opt-outs as a means of protest and to affect permanent systemic change. If I'm not allowed to fail a student without explanation (not that I'd want to), the state isn't allowed to do that to its public schools either.

Which brings me to the aspects of this test I hate, and I submit, you should hate them too.

The reading materials are ancient and stuffy, and were selected with the profit motive in mind, rather than giving students a fair chance at success. By now you may have seen the one online sample assessment, featuring ye olde and too far above grade level reading samples. All year, teachers work to find books we believe students can relate to, works that are verbally and thematically challenging while remaining developmentally appropriate. The materials selected by Pearson and friends for P.A.R.C.C. were selected based on being old enough to be in the public domain (in other words, free to use). This will negatively impact the results. Pearson needs to pay for age-appropriate material. They can do so while maintaining their precious profit margin, a concern that the state should've always insistent on being ancillary to genuine student development. I know it's a thought crime, but the profit motive is toxic in many domains (public schools, health care, prisons, highways, etc).

The hardest writing portions of P.A.R.C.C. are in early March, to the detriment of students and for the convenience of Pearson's graders. This lost month is massively important for the average twelve-year-old, and I'm willing to bet my colleagues in other grade levels feel the same. As an English teacher, I understand better than most that grading writing in a substantive way takes time. So why doesn't the state or Pearson or the subcontracted subcontractor grading the responses take the extra few weeks? I'd sooner have the results ruining my Halloween party than have the test rushed and my students a month less prepared.

For many special education students, this is simply child abuse. The paradigm where schools go out of their way to meet students' special needs during the school year, and then the state forces them to take the same test as everyone else in the spring, has never made sense. A harder test without accommidations ranging beyond "more time to climb a mountain with no gear" is going to set these students up for pointless discouragement.

For better or worse, this test will change the school experience for the majority of students in my state, and any other state attempting to align itself to common core in the name of keeping their federal funding. My inner paranoid liberal wants to believe this is a Trojan Horse to destroy and ultimately privatize public schools, motivated by the fascist Koch-A.L.E.C. minority that's done so much damage to so many national institutions in my lifetime (cue Star Wars Empire theme). But I'm not there yet. I've done all I can to prepare my students this year, and I'll adjust my approach based on this year's results. I've yet to see evidence that P.A.R.C.C. is failure by design. Time will tell.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Video Games that Tell Great Stories

You may be an eighties baby like me, in which case you remember being thrown out of the house at some point, bleary-eyed after ten consecutive hours of Nintendo. (You may have also hyperventilated from blowing in the damn cartridges to make them work. These kids today and their DVD games, they'll never know...) If so, you might also remember the first great plot twist in gaming. 1986's Metroid broke ground for many reasons. It was one of the first free-roaming games: rather than running left to right a la Super Mario, the setting ran left, right, up, and down, which was mind-blowing by rubix cube age standards. It was the game that first popularized giving you permanent upgrades and a password system that saved them, so your character evolved. It was also, as you found out at the end, the first game with a female protagonist. Lady gamers are very accepted now, but in the Bea Arthur shoulderpad era, I can't explain how revolutionary this was. The fact that the protagonist, Samus Aran, had a spacesuit that concealed her gender (along with that wonderfully ambiguous name), meant that (at the time, mostly male) gamers assumed they were a dude, until they found out they'd been a strong woman the whole time. Radically progressive for the dark ages of Reagan.

That was the first game to show me games could tell a story with genuine character development. I tried to get my folks to understand this evolution, but they were still big on the "outside" thing. (At least it taught me how to talk to humans.)

In 1989, a game called Ninja Gaiden ushered in the next big breakthrough in video game storytelling: cinema scenes. After a level of harrowing jumps and frenzied enemy attacks, you'd be treated to a mini-movie showing why your character needed to go to some other dangerous place. It was a giant leap forward from, "We're sorry, Mario, but the Princess in in another castle." This was the first time finding out what happens next was the impetus for playing on.

The first time I ever played a game and realized I would read it as a book was 1995's Chrono Trigger. The story was Sci-fi gold, with arguably the best antagonist in gaming history. The time-hopping quest was centered around preventing the 1999 destruction of the world by Lavos, a godlike alien parasite that burrowed into the earth during prehistoric times and spent centuries draining it dry.

Playing games now involves being a part of an interactive movie, but the first popular game to create this feeling for me was 1998's Metal Gear Solid, which told the tale of Solid Snake's quest to wrestle a bipedal tank equipped with nuclear weapons away from an army of genetically engineered super soldiers.

The first time video games created a setting that was a character in its own right was 2007's Bioshock, which told the tale of Rapture, a city under the sea created as a libertarian paradise where "splicers" could purchase superpowers in exchange for their labor. Of course, splicing featured insanity as a side-effect, so by the time your protagonist arrived, the place was a dystopian theme park loaded with twitchy supermen.

These are traits we take for granted in modern gaming. We expect jaw-dropping plot twists, an interactive movie experience, spectacular villains, and environments that qualify as characters. A game like The Last of Us is better written than many episodes of "The Walking Dead". If you aren't an eighties baby, and happen to encounter any of these games in an emulator, experience them. There is no replacement for a great novel, but the greatest games can offer something like the immersive experience of a book.