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.


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.


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.


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.


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 story regarding PARCC and has asked me a few questions. When her story is published, I will provide a link to it.


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



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

#ctrl-shift: small recap of 17-Feb gathering

This post is an attempt to summarize some of the discussions held over drinks at the Blind Pig on Tuesday evening, 17-Feb. I will only scratch the surface, so I ask that others who attended fill in the many blank spots.


First, the CTRL-Shift email list now has a public archive (woot!!):

For those not familiar with the pipermail interface, I recommend you start with picking the latest month (in the second row, eg, February) and choosing the “Date” format (last option in the second column). You can play with different formats as you wish. Basically, this is an archive of all emails sent to the CTRL-Shift email list. If you hunt around, you can even find a list of all email recipients.


Also, for record, here is the CTRL-Shift website:


The first major discussion, a topic we would return to many times last night, was about the PARCC test (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers). It seems the general consensus is that Common Core itself is a good thing, but PARCC is not serving our students, teachers or parents well. One person did raise the point that PARCC might actually be reinforcing the “good feelings” and confidence of those who take tests well in the first place, and for them PARCC might have some glimmer of benefit. But for everyone else, PARCC seems to do more harm than good. As tossed around in CTRL-Shift emails (for example), there is a fair amount of controversy surrounding the rapid Pearson-based implementation of PARCC, and so far we have not heard anyone who is really gung-ho for it. It is telling that so many states that initially supported the PARCC project have dropped out.


One of the many tangents/sidebars we explored was that of school board candidates and the leadership’s support of CTRL-Shift’s work at Kenwood. Obviously, those heavily involved in the programs at Kenwood are quite invested and want to see the fruit of their labor be sustainable going forward. There was talk of what various board candidates support, including the upcoming forums as an opportunity to learn more about the various platforms of each candidate.


Another related topic dealt with the work of curriculum development. As a parent and observer, I don’t really have any direct experience with such work, but one thing that was repeated is that this is very difficult, on top of the fact that there is no panacea, no “one-stop-shop”, no short-cuts to producing a curriculum; moreover, it is a process, as opposed to a product. Thus what CTRL-Shift is is not so much measured in physical output, but rather in how mindsets and learning environments are altered. Don’t be misled into thinking there is no output – check out the amazing TechTime @Kenwood blog to see what students are actually doing:


One very exciting report was that 15 Kenwood students are going to a SIT conference this weekend; what I personally find amazing about this whole experience is that, first, it is very project-based (which I absolutely LOVE), and second, to hear how students encounter and overcome challenges implicit in this endeavor; they have to not only come up with a topic, but figure out how to make it work and how to present it. From what I have heard, the actual presentation is just a small side-show compared to the bulk of the work these students and staff have been throwing themselves into at many after-school bi-weekly sessions.


Hopefully that gets your appetite going for what school can be. 🙂 It certainly made me want more.


I’m looking at you others that attended last night to fill in more details in the comments below.

“We make the road by walking”, part deux

Recently, Dr. George Reese (MTSE, CTRL-Shift, etc) emailed the CTRL-Shift list about a video he had watched of the “Good Morning Mission Hill” school model (from Founder Deborah Meier). I asked about borrowing it, so he brought it to the Blind Pig for the CTRL-Shift gathering tonight. I took it home and watched it straight away.

Now I am agitated inside because there is so much that I love about this school model that I dearly want to see in my local schools, but I don’t know how to make that a reality.

There are some major things that hit me hard.

First and foremost, it comes down to allowing humans to be human, allow the natural to be natural. And fundamentally to grow relationships. In fact, there was a line that a teacher used that almost exactly echoes the way Lisa Delpitt ends her “Other Peoples’ Children” book – “to teach you, I must know you”. Relationships are hard things, and our modern schools do not prioritize relationships. Yet, in my opinion, learning how to “do” relationships is probably the single most important factor in a successful society. I would ask Martin if he agrees, since we share many aspects in our world view. It seems to me that humans, and many other living creatures, are naturally hardwired for relationships.

Second, the school takes integration to a whole new level. It so much reminded me of Paulo Freire and Myles Horton (in fact, when I write my blog post about this, I will steal the title of their book, “We make the road by walking”) and their Highlander Folk School. So while we use new words like “project-based learning”, “collaborative spaces”, “student-directed outcomes”, really this just repackages older ideas that have older names (and so says Rebecca Patterson, who lived through something similar). For all I know, Freire and Horton recycled ideas that predated even them. They not only integrated, very successfully, people who are “different” (differently-abled or otherwise), but they integrated assessment (I absolutely love how they rendered assessment as “to sit next to”) and life-skills right into the daily flow of class time.

Third; while I do not yet share Dr. Reese’s conviction that PARCC writers set out to destory public education (*grin*), I would consent that standardized testing has had that end result. It seems that standardized testing killed what was great about Good Morning Mission Hill. But why? At the Blind Pig today we talked about what an awesome school Leal was. Is it merely the nature of these things to ebb and flow, to wax and wane like a moon visiting each chapter of its interminable cycle?



During a brief chat with Todd Lash and Minsoo Park at Kenwood today, I was commenting about how we got to where we are, and Minsoo wisely, succintly said “money”. Big money drives the federal mandates, while at the same time sucking away the very money needed to support those mandates. At the same time, “little money” is spent frivolously, without accountability – our tax dollars hard at work.

Last night I read the “young reader’s edition” of “I am Malala“; this was a totally fascinating, if shortened, account of a woman with tremendous bravery, amazing courage and wise beyond her years. She literally put her life on the line, multiple times, to pursue that which is good. Is this not what we all should be doing?

We will not be judged by what we say but by what we do. The path our feet make will show where we have been and how far we traveled.

I titled this post “part deux” because I have written about Freire and Horton’s book before.

Computational Thinking on tonight’s BOE agenda

The agenda for tonight’s BOE meeting has a number of items, but my focus in this post is to concentrate on “Computational Thinking”. There is no attached document, so nothing I can link to from here, but the agenda item does have a lengthy description which I include at the bottom of this post. I have had many great conversations with Todd Lash, Kerris Lee and Dr. George Reese via Ctrl-Shift – there is so much exciting stuff happening with this group.


I will also say that I realize “computational thinking” can be rather hard to wrap your head around. In talking to parents and teachers, I have heard (and heard of) parents asking teachers “why is my child doing eToys? How is that part of the curriculum?”. I think one of the important things to remember about technology in general is that it is just a tool. Think about the root word in “computer” – to steal from the geek cult-classic Short Circuit “It’s a machine, Schroeder. It doesn’t get pissed off. It doesn’t get happy, it doesn’t get sad, it doesn’t laugh at your jokes. It just runs programs.” At one point, the pencil was a technological marvel. *grin* The idea is to use a tool that allows for collaboration, exercising critical thinking skills, and processing logical patterns. But read the “background information” below for more (and better?) details.


Kerris wanted to reiterate that even though he is involved with Ctrl-Shift (as are others from the University of Illinois), 100% of the money they are asking for is purely for teachers, subs and teacher professional development (PD).


At tonight’s meeting, I believe Todd Lash will be bringing forward some of the Kenwood students to present and show off what Computational Thinking is all about. I have asked Kerris to see if perhaps those of us who are unable to attend the BOE meeting can perhaps tweet questions to Stephanie Stuart during the meeting. I’ll update this post when I find out. I am curious, how many of you would take advantage of being able to tweet Stephanie with live questions? (regardless of whether or not the idea flies)


Background Information:

Kenwood staff and students will present their ongoing work on computational thinking and computer science. Cultural shifts made over the last year at Kenwood and future plans will be explored.

The use of technology has shifted dramatically in the first decade of the 21st century. The average amount of time spent on-line by Americans increased from 2.7 hours per week in 2000 to 2.6 hours per day in 2010 (Sheninger,2014). In 2011, 71% of students between 11 and 16 had their own game consoles at home spending an average of 1.7 hours per day using this technology. A recent national survey found that of those teens online, 73% used social networking sites while equal numbers of young adults also used social networking sites (Sheninger, 2014). The extensive use of technology by students and families strongly suggests that the practical application of 21st century literacy skills should be an important part of the school curriculum. However, in most cases technology and 21st century literacies have been taught in isolation from the rest of the curriculum. The importance of integrating these skills into the curriculum is an essential tool to help students deepen their understanding and increase their engagement regarding computational thinking, but also identifying its application in subject areas such as mathematics. The District proposes creating intentional connections between the newly adopted Everyday Mathematics curriculum and a computational thinking framework. During the past year and half, the University of Illinois has collaborated with Kenwood beginning the process of developing computer science and computational thinking (CS/CT) throughout the school. The Department of computer science has generously donated $40,000.00 during the 2013-14 school year to provide training and support for classroom teachers as they have continued to develop their CS/CT teaching strategies and in addition have worked with students and families through outreach during Saturday programs.  Kenwood and other district campuses and staff look forward to continuing this collaboration with the University of Illinois.


Staffing/Staff Development Needs:

The District will post and hire staff to develop up to five modules to connect mathematics content to computational thinking.  Possible connections include the following: Use one of the Common Core learning progressions in mathematics as a content template for development: K-6 Geometry, K-5 Geometric Measurement, K-5 Number and Operations, or Grades 3-5 Fractions are possibilities.
Participants may include classroom teachers (K-8), Unit 4 administrators, University of Illinois collaborators from the following colleges and departments; College of Education Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education, Center for Small Urban Communities, Department of Computer Science, Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences, Everyday Mathematics Collaborators and other community representatives.  If approved, the planning process will begin with positions posted in November. Curriculum writing work would be completed between December and May of this academic year.


Financial Implications:

Estimated costs of the project would be $37,340. These costs include teacher writing days to develop the modules, consultant fees for other providers, and materials.





Chat with Kerris Lee

Board member Kerris (up until a couple Thursdays ago, the newest board member) was out of commission for a few days, but we finally connected. I had initially contacted several board members about the Bambenek appointment, but our conversation morphed and took on much bigger issues. Which is a good thing; Kerris enlightened me on many of the awesome things he is in the middle of right now.

To do things a little backwards, I’ll start with my conclusion or my take-away, which I told Kerris at the end of our talk; somebody really needs to take an audio recording when talking to board members! *grin* He shared so many great things I fear I will miss some of them in my retelling of them. Yes, I realize having an audio record can be abused and might even stymie some of the more colorful expressions one might use. Baby and bathwater. Or maybe board members need an outlet to broadcast/publish without so many restrictive guidelines. I do not know any perfect solutions – I am just very inspired when talking to Kerris, and it would be awesome if more folks could have been in on the chat.

To that end, we covered the topic of “transparency” a bit. As with many other subjects we went over, there are two facets or aspects when it comes to the board; there is the “public” face they show to all of us, the portal through which we start to form our opinions and perspectives, and then there is the more private portion, where individual board members are doing amazing things, and even as a board, they are moving in various directions and covering some ground, but the public just has no clue whatsoever. As mentioned in my Bambenek post, I think it is important to recognize the progress that the board has made while also at the same time keeping an eye on the end goal. I had to agree with that, by and large, I believe the Board as a whole does not want to hide things; rather, I get the impression that there is an underlying systemic force that works against creative ways of communicating and sharing. On the whole, the board tends to err on the side of caution, or rather, on the side of being “informationally conservative”. Kerris indicated that he has talked to Superintendent Judy Wiegand and Board President Laurie Bonnett, as well as School Attorney Tom Lockman and Board Attorney Sally Carter, about addressing these fundamental roadblocks at the policy level. As with other board members, I have asked Kerris about all that goes on in Exec Session, and he has reassured me he is asking if more can be shared in Open Session.

We also covered AYP a bit. With NCLB pushing unrealistic goals (we are not aware of a single public school that meets 100% AYP across all subgroups), school districts are being faced with not only the temptation to “teach to the test”, but now are also being hammered with Common Core transitions. This topic alone was one of the big issues during the CFT negotiations (time outside of teaching time), and something I hear about from teachers as being a challenge to deal with. Again I asked how parents and the community can help shoulder that burden or at least do something about it.

In terms of the board engaging with the community more and along the lines of the board getting their thoughts out to the public, we lightly considered blogs, tweets and even a radio show. The fact of the matter is that nothing beats one-to-one conversations. What if the board did rotating shifts (no more than two board members each) at a coffee shop or other such venue? When Chuck and I were out at Houlihans every Wednesday, we were honored to be graced by board members every once in a while, and it was a great way to connect and catch up. I am curious, would members of the public take advantage of these opportunities? I am not looking for casual sounds of “sure”, but solid commitments; even though we made opportunities available at Houlihans, not many people at all showed up.

Kerris also mentioned that the board is preparing to make several presentations to the public about the high school referendum. He expressed a little bit of frustration in that the board is constrained to only communicate facts, and so being “informationally conservative”, their message may lack the soft edges of more embellished thoughts. I challenged Kerris with the idea of doing charrettes, of bringing in opinions and perspectives from students, teachers and community members. Even at this late stage, there is no reason why the district cannot see what people want. Kerris gave me some insight into some of the ideas that are being batted around internally (some of them sound really cool, like more focus on vo-tech), and again I had to ask where the community was in that discussion. I am hoping to hear back from Kerris in a couple weeks to see how these ideas are being floated internally.

Our conversation transitioned to Educational Technology, and this is where most of my excitement comes from in regards to our discussion. Most people already know, but for those that do not, Kerris has been a huge supporter of getting kids into programming, eToys and pushing technology in the curriculum (ie, STEM). Makes me wish I was a kid again. 🙂 As recently announced on the Unit 4 Facebook page, Kenwood is taking the next step to encourage kids to think “computationally” and pursue programming. The school’s new theme (Technology and Literacy in the Community) is benefiting from huge support from the University of Illinois’s Mathematics, Science and Technology Education (MSTE) department, headed up by George Reese. As a side note, Dr. Reese is also on the Advisory Council for the Center of Education in Small Urban Communities, which has been very involved in local education and will be doing a lot more. I mentioned that it is still hard for me to see the wedding of technology in today’s curriculum, but Kerris assured me that we are only going through the birth pains right now.


I need to circle back and ask about the topic of increased usage and interest in technology; what will “school” look like in 20 years? Will classrooms become more “flipped”? Will more students (and families) be able to learn at home (perhaps on school provided technology)? How does that play into the whole high school tax referendum?


One thing that really impressed me as I was talking to Kerris is that he is out there in the community doing things. Not just talking the talk at board meetings, but he is tracking down and researching policy issues and legislation that stands in the way of progress and is talking to pivotal decision-makers in an attempt to make things better for our children and our community. He is involved with United Way, the recently started Cradle to Careers and many other service-oriented ventures in town. To put it bluntly, the guy is just friggin’ nuts! 🙂

This post is just a sample of what we talked about. As with many other board members, Kerris reiterated that he is more than happy to chat with anyone. So give him a call or drop him and email. I warn you, he is extremely busy and you might have to be patient to hammer out a good time. But the wait is worth it. 🙂

Unit 4 gives kudos to the BOE and Raspberry Pi's to Kenwood

Stephanie Stuart just put this out:

Truly board members are indeed volunteers; even just being involved on the peripherary as I have been, I know they put in a ton of demanding hours. It is no trivial task, and the feeble of heart need not apply. So my thanks also to Board Members.

My attention was quite piqued when I saw that notice that Kenwood would be getting 7 Raspberry Pi units (one in honor of each board member). The Pi is down to about $25, so this isn’t some huge expense. But that is the beauty of the Pi in the first place – it is an awesome, DIY hobbyist-era miniture computer that is cheap.

For those that might not recall, Kenwood is piloting a STEM curriculum out of the University of Illinois headed up by Martin Wolske. They have debuted the implementation of eToys (again, with strong University support) as reported by the NG with an element of addressing computer learning in the community (again, as reported by the NG, hat tip to Meg Dickinson). I hope to learn more from Avigail Snir at eToys Illinois, Director George Reese, and Kenwood staff Minsoo Park and Todd Lash.

For myself, I have been helping a 4th grade classroom at Carrie Busey with their own exploration of eToys. It is amazing to see the rich variety of how kids tackle problems and challenges. True, computers are not for everyone, and it shows when some kids struggle with the interface. But what I really dig is when another student leans over and teaches their peer.

But I have to confess, perhaps my biggest reason for this post is to brag that my daughter will be doing a demo of the Raspberry Pi at her school’s Science Night tonight; she will focus on a program very much like eToys called “Scratch“. She favors the paint editor and duplicating Scratch into a family. 🙂