Current thoughts on the PARCC

After my last post, I have had a number of conversations that have made it harder for me to decide where I fall on PARCC testing; so I thought, why not just dump all that into a blog post.

Summary

PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) has a lot of both good and bad things tied up with it. What makes it challenging for me is that there is also a lot of emotion getting thrown into the mix. When I look at where Illinois is headed in terms of assessments, some of my concerns are alleviated but I still have issues with the current implementation. In the end, I have to ask myself “What really is the root concern here?” For me, I would like teachers to know that I support them in their hard work. How can I help?


Just to get my subjectivity (emotion) out in the open and out of the way, let me state that I personally hate the way we do standardized tests; my own experience has taught me that the way we have been doing standardized tests for the past few decades add zero value to the student or the teacher, and creates a strictly synthetic environment that does not reflect real life in the least. But these types of “assessments”, having been around for so long and as ubiquitous across different industries as they are, are not going away any time soon.

During my inquiry of PARCC, I came across some jargon that would be helpful to spell out a little. These are not perfect by any means, so corrections are welcome.

Apparently in the world of Education, there are many different forms of assessment. However the two most common seem to be “formative assessments” and “summative assessments”.

Formative Assessments: this is like checking your compass every once in a while to make sure you are still heading in the right direction; these are typically “low-stakes” (low point value) evaluations to see if the student is progressing along at an expected rate, and if any intervention or augmentation is needed to help realign the student.

Summative Assessments: The “final exam”. Did the student reach the final goal, did the student meet the objectives? Did you do what you said you were going to do? These are typically the “high-stakes” testing (high point values).

Student Learning Objectives (SLO): no clear cut definition, but in general this seems to be a way to measure what a student has learned. According to edGlossary, there are several synonyms: “benchmark, grade-level indicatorlearning target, performance indicator, and learning standard“.

My duality towards PARCC is formed by several different factors. I will start with the negative and end with the positive.

Cons

It is easy to get sucked into the emotional vortex of other people’s opinions; not to disregard any of these parents and adults, for they have very passionate and strong beliefs for their point of view. If you want to, there are plenty of recorded board meetings where parents and teachers address administrative bodies around the country. Finding that here in Champaign is a bit trickier. *grin*

For my own “ground-level” perspective, I had the opportunity to sit in a real class for a “practice” test. To paint a little historical picture, keep in mind that this school year is the first year any school will be administering the PARCC, which replaces the ISAT tests a bulk majority of us are familiar with. I am told that teachers in Champaign did not receive training on PARCC until after December 15th, 2014. That was just two months ago. In addition to a totally new test, PARCC is now online and the software takes a bit getting used to. In a sense, the teachers are forced to teach students how to use the software. From my own observation, there was a wide range of ability to grasp and navigate the interface; yet even the “fastest” students were not halfway through after 40 minutes, and few of them were utilizing the “extra features” included in the software.

I also took the sample ELA test. You can read that blog post if you like, but in general I was quite agitated – the software itself makes the test more challenging despite the content.

This leads me to conclude that if all schools started with the paper-and-pencil test this year, the transition might have been a lot smoother. But we didn’t.

There is also the threat that high-stakes testing (like PARCC) will be used in the future as a primary tool to evaluate teachers. I will cover this in the “Pros” section below as well- Brian Minsker gives a good example of how this could be abused. Or rather, how such testing offers an incomplete evaluation of what a teacher has accomplished.

In passing I will say that I have heard others say that PARCC is harder or better than the ISATs. I can’t really say for sure; I have not found a sample ISAT from 2014 to make a good comparison.

Pros

A few weeks ago, I had an excellent conversation with some fine folks over at ISBE (you can read about it, if you have the time). I asked Ms. Chamness for a follow-up conversation, and invited Dr. George Reese to join us. He also happened to bring along Dr. Kathleen Smith, so it was a rather impressive group. 🙂 Additionally, I had a very enlightening exchange on the PTA Council email list in which Brian Minsker provided a bit of background information and broader perspective (you can find a copy of our discussion on the PTA Council listserve public archive).

I am going to glob much of what I learned under this “Pro” section because they do a good job at diffusing much of the drama sprouting up around PARCC.

For better or worse, we live under the law of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). According to the government’s website, Champaign Unit 4 receives a little over $1.2 million in Title 1 funds (where “Title 1” is directly from the ESEA). According to that same law, all schools that receive Title 1 funding must meet a 95% participation rate in standardized testing, with the threat of possible sanctions should that participation rate not be met. Ms. Chamness explained that the rate applies at all levels; state, district and even the school. She also explained that there are many codes used to demark non-participation (ie, sick, snow day, death, etc).

Another point that Ms. Chamness made is seeded in the quirky “Race to the Top” waivers many states have been applying for. According to Ms. Chamness, one of the reasons why Illinois has not yet been granted a waiver is that Illinois is unique in specifying that high-stakes testing NOT be used as a significant basis for teacher evaluations; instead, ISBE is pushing for the involvement of local bargaining units (ie, teacher unions) to come up with measurements of student growth. I will quote Brian Minsker’s synopsis. “What that means is that students who come into 4th grade reading at a 2nd grade level, for example, but leave 4th grade reading at a mid-3rd grade level would be recognized for their improvement (1.5 years of reading skills in a single year) rather than their failure to meet the 4th grade reading standard. Labeling students showing such tremendous growth and hard work as ‘failing’ is a disservice both the them and the teachers who achieve those results.”

Dr. Kathleen Smith asked Ms. Chamness if ISBE and Pearson will release data such that schools and teachers can perform formative assessments. Ms. Chamness replied that this is in fact part of their agreement with Pearson, but not much has been done about it, yet.

Conclusion

Everyone I have talked to so far agrees that assessments are necessary. There are a lot of good intentions at play, and also a significant amount of change; the latter sometimes makes the former harder to see. But I think it is important to realize that change in and of itself is not necessarily “good” or “bad”. And there is most likely going to be both involved. 🙂

I have expressed to Ms. Chamness that an easy-to-read overview of why we have PARCC would be very helpful. I hope to provide a link to that in the near future.

It makes sense to me when I hear people say that PARCC is being rolled out way too fast – this is apparent when I read about the technical issues and how Pearson is responding, not to mention the obvious shortcomings in the software itself. However, it also seems to me that people are afraid of the changes.

So here is a news flash – I am not a certified teacher. I have never taken any class in how to be a teacher. This means I don’t know all the theory about teaching, nor do I know what works best in a classroom. But I want to invest in and support the teachers in our school district. Our teachers are going to have to speak up and say what they think about the PARCC (and TestNav and Common Core, etc). In the end, I want to make sure that public education is fulfilling its moral obligation to crank out successful and engaged members of society. What would a formative assessment of “public education” look like?

PS – Ms. Kelly Youngblood is working on a chambanamoms.com story regarding PARCC and has asked me a few questions. When her story is published, I will provide a link to it.

UPDATE

Here is Ms. Youngblood’s Chambanamoms well written article – I encourage you to read it:

http://www.chambanamoms.com/2015/02/22/parcctestingchampaignurbana/

 

UPDATE 2

Mr. Nate Rodgers of WICD reported on parents opting out tonight (Feb 25th):

http://www.wicd15.com/news/top-stories/stories/parents-opting-out-parcc-test-11817.shtml

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5 Responses to “Current thoughts on the PARCC”

  1. pattsi Says:

    You might correct the following “I am told that teachers in Champaign did not receive training on PARCC until after December 15th, 2015.”

    I am a bit troubled by this posting in that there is no digging as to why these tests are so institutionalized–meaning looking at the business end of producing testing that has exploded over the decades as a money maker, not as a good, true assessment tool. How did children ever advance until these testing tools came on the screen. Decades of children did advance and some even became intellectual leaders. How did this happen without testing? Who are the lobbiest pushing testing so at the federal level there have been established funding to leverage the “buy in” for these tests?

  2. charlesdschultz Says:

    Typo fixed, thanks.

    UPDATE
    Here is Ms. Youngblood’s Chambanamoms well written article – I encourage all to read it:
    http://www.chambanamoms.com/2015/02/22/parcctestingchampaignurbana/

  3. pattsi Says:

    If the following is accurate reporting, then your blog readers are due much more detailed information why this huge change of opinion and will your child be taking the test in March.
    From the Chambanamoms blog:
    “Schultz’s concerns included questions about the vendor, the test questions themselves, and the high-stakes the tests will play in teacher evaluations. But after talking with his PTA representative, the Director of Assessments at the Illinois State Board of Education, and several others, Schultz says he no longer feels strongly opposed to PARCC.

    Although he believes some undesirable issues still remain such as teacher training being rushed and unfamiliarity with the test software causing teachers to take extra class time to have students practice the test, Schultz views the tests differently now.

    “My conversation with (ISBE Director of Assessments) has been so encouraging that I am excited about what is potentially coming down the pike; perhaps an open source testing platform, and perhaps a more organic method of assessing student growth,” Schultz said.
    – See more at: http://www.chambanamoms.com/2015/02/22/parcctestingchampaignurbana/#sthash.7jh5D4iY.dpuf

  4. charlesdschultz Says:

    Mr. Nate Rodgers of WICD was busy contacting people and reported on parents opting out tonight (Feb 25th):

    http://www.wicd15.com/news/top-stories/stories/parents-opting-out-parcc-test-11817.shtml

  5. William Gayhart Says:

    To delay criticism because the people who put their reputation behind the value of the tests say that great things are on the way seems kind of naive. How about we give Pearson credit for a great tool after they actually produce some great tools. There seems to be too much credit given for what should happen in theory instead of what is happening in reality.

    The technical issues are a nightmare. In my time as a systems analyst with IBM, a project delivered in this manner would have been the last project that the team responsible delivered. Yet, Pearson gets to skate while producing the same bad tests that they’ve been producing for years. Now, not only are the tests bad, but the online delivery system is one of the worst that I’ve experienced. Par for Pearson.

    The questions that I’ve seen in the samples do not involve any ‘higher level thinking’, which you’d think that was just discovered in the past few years based on the hype. As it is, the test will measure students ability to navigate poorly developed software as much as any learning objective.

    When you add in all of the time (and this never gets included) that the setup, debugging, troubleshooting, administration, and practice, the number of hours and cost of this boondoggle are staggering.

    Now, let me ask this. Somehow despite the great abilities of Pearson, College Board, PARCC and the rest, the best indicator of college performance is still GPA, which is given by teachers. How did ordinary teachers without any special tools beat the testing giants? Why are we spending all of this time and money on something that works WORSE at predicting future success than the teachers we already have?

    Last, just because there is a huge industry dedicated to testing doesn’t make it inevitable, necessary, or well thought out. There are nearly infinite examples of why the adage ‘sunk costs are sunk’ should be followed here. Put the money back where it belongs–helping students, not promoting a failed educational oligarchy.


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