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Fix, Don’t Discard MCAS/PARCC

This fall I had one on one conversations with many of our state's leaders and experts on the misplaced opposition to testing in gen...

Thursday, June 12, 2014

My comments on anti-PARCC movement

PARCC exam draws fire from Somerville parents, teachers

By Monica Jimenez
June 12. 2014 8:09AM

Too much testing in Somerville Public Schools is hurting teachers and students and should be reconsidered, according to Somerville teachers and parents.

At a forum on high-stakes standardized testing at the Somerville Public Library June 5, a petition to pause the rollout of the PARCC exam sparked an outpouring of fear, heartbreak and anger from more than 60 teachers, parents and education professionals about the ever-increasing emphasis on standardized testing in public schools, which they said is decreasing the quality of education and putting stress on teachers and students. The forum was organized by three opponents of increased testing – State Sen. Pat Jehlen, Somerville teacher union head Jackie Lawrence and former Cambridge Public Schools kindergarten teacher Susan Sluyter, who has spoken out nationally against the effects of increased testing.

PARCC, which stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, is a test developed across states and based on federal Common Core standards. Massachusetts officials have worked on developing the PARCC test and 81,000 students, including ones in Somerville, have taken a pilot version of the exam this year instead of the MCAS test.
Firsthand experience

The proliferation of further testing is the last thing schools need, Somerville teachers and parents said at the meeting.

"In Somerville, kindergarten tests are immediate, right off the bat," said East Somerville Community School third-grade Unidos ELA and math teacher Patrice Hobbs. "As soon as school starts, your child is being tested."

Somerville parent Janine Ell said although her daughter does fine on all the tests, there are too many, and there are always new ones to get used to.

"My bigger issue is about what we want to spend time on in the course of the day. I think we spend too much time on testing," Ell said. "And sometimes I don’t want all the information I get. Let’s make some decisions about what’s valuable and stick to it."

Superintendent Tony Pierantozzi’s upcoming retirement provides a prime opportunity to effect change by influencing the School Committee’s selection of a new superintendent, but in the meantime there’s something else they can do, Ell said.

"The Somerville community should ask the School Committee and the superintendent to pause PARCC for the 2014-2015 school year to allow a community-wide discussion about PARCC," Ell said. "Somerville has not had a chance to thoroughly discuss what it means for the kids."

Boston University professor Bayla Ostrach said she has butted heads with Somerville school administrators, from principal to assistant superintendent to superintendent, over her daughter not wanting to take the MCAS, she said. They have been reluctant to give her information about testing dates and have pressured her to have her daughter take the tests, Ostrach said.

Not only that, but her college students are stymied when she tells them she doesn’t give tests and she expects them to show their learning through speaking, Ostrach said.

"Kids come into the classroom and they’re good at taking tests, but they’re not good at walking in the room and throwing ideas around and thinking critically about it," Ostrach said. "They think I tell them what to know and they regurgitate it on tests."

Parent Brian Duplisea said it’s not right that parents don’t know much about the transition from MCAS to PARCC.

"I think we need to put pressure on the school system and say we demand a dialogue because we are paying for this," Duplisea said. He added, "Our kids are too important."

In defense of testing
However, a few parents and School Committee members spoke in defense of testing. Parent Greg Nadeau was frustrated with what he called the "one-sided" conversation at the forum, saying education is going through a transition and testing helps focus resources on students who are less proficient to achieve equity in schooling.

"It’s a false dichotomy to say because we’re doing DIBELS [early literacy test], we can’t have play in our kindergarten classrooms. It’s ridiculous and not true. We can have play and art. And we can also have data, facts and science. They’re not mutually exclusive," Nadeau said.

He added, "What we should be talking about is how to make this better and implement it in a way that’s better for the whole child."

School Committee member Paul Bockelman said the remarks he heard at the meeting were "disheartening" and the School Committee will be grappling with the MCAS versus the PARCC, but defended testing.
"The idea that tests are bad is ridiculous. Every teacher said they are assessing kids every day. Every industry is becoming more and more about assessing how we’re doing. We want that," Bockelman said.
Still, Bockelman said assessments need to be balanced with teachers being able to use their professional judgment in their classrooms.

"Tests aren’t perfect. Nothing does critical thinking like a teacher sitting with a student," Bockelman.
School Committee member Caroline Normand also asked parents to remember and celebrate what is good about Somerville schools, to speak about what they value so the school system can do more of it.
"We need to have assessment, but useful assessment," Normand said.

Testing through the yearsA few Somerville residents went more in-depth into the bigger-picture effects of too much assessment, and the history of testing.

Somerville resident Nancy Carlsson-Paige, who taught teachers at Lesley University for 35 years and is now involved in education policy, said several factors have contributed to the increasing emphasis on testing, including a genuine desire to close the achievement gap, the increased federal role in public education, and the growing belief that collecting systemized data would lead to successful schools and learners.

However, schools with low test scores have been closed and sometimes replaced with charter schools, which means billions in public tax dollars are moving from the public to the private sector, Carlsson-Paige said. Teachers are vilified and punished for low test scores and are working in a climate of fear, she said.
"What it does when a teacher’s job is on the line and they pay for test scores, mean they teach to the test," Carlsson-Paige said. "They have to abandon the kind of education they love because the stakes are high for teacher survival as well as the school and the child."

Somerville resident Clara Simmons traced the emphasis on standardized testing back to U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who agreed to institute testing not because he believed in it, but because Republicans demanded it to hold him accountable for his educational initiatives.
"They are a statistical hoax. If you talk to a well-informed superintendent, they will admit it," Simmons said. "A fourth-grade test isn’t a fourth-grade test. It is a statistical procedure to decide what the average fourth-grader should know."

Use politicsState senator Pat Jehlen, D-Somerville, whose grandchildren attend the Healey School in Somerville, said the intention behind standardized testing is good, but the way it’s being used is not.

"It’s not testing that’s wrong, it’s the interventions that follow, the high stakes for kids’ graduation and moving from grade to grade," Jehlen said. "For teacher it is or will be part of their evaluation. For schools it begins to be important because schools can be labeled low-performing."

It’s unfair because studies have shown student achievement is largely determined by family income, not by the teacher or the school, Jehlen said. Test scores reflect the wrong information, and prioritizing them leads to the wrong outcomes, she said.

"They’re saying you have to turn around your school in three years or fire all the faculty. There are really fast ways to turn around schools and turn around scores," Jehlen said. "Get rid of special ed, get rid of ELL. If you want better test scores, you just have to get kid from better backgrounds, who don’t have family members getting shot at night, who get breakfast even on weekends."
"Let us know you’re being sarcastic, OK?" pleaded Ell.

Rather than focusing on what students should know on a test in high school and working backwards to determine early childhood curriculum, schools should teach the way kids learn, and listen to their preschool teachers, said Jehlen, who urged keeping the conversation going.

"Don’t be afraid to use politics, because that’s what’s going to change what happens here," Jehlen said.

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