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.

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