PARCC requires a new and unprecedented kind of test prep

On January 14th, Star-Ledger guest columnist Patricia Wright, executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, published an opinion piece advising New Jerseyans to “Give NJ’s new PARCC tests a chance.

In her column, Wright offers a message that’s typical of Common Core/PARCC supporters: that PARCC tests will “more accurately gauge our students’ mastery” of the new standards and will “lead to higher levels of student achievement”– even though neither of these claims has been or can be substantiated.

But rather than focusing–again–on the glaring, numerous, and undeniable problems with PARCC tests (see here for the Delran Education Association’s position statement on high-stakes standardized tests, and see here for Save Our Schools New Jersey’s “The 12 Reasons We Oppose the PARCC test,” and see here for Seton Hall professor Chris Tienken’s debunking of five PARCC claims), I’ll address another issue Wright brings up: that of “teaching to the test.”

Wright claims:

“Issues of accountability have also led to concerns that teachers will ‘teach to the test,’ narrowing what kids learn. Fortunately, this apprehension is unfounded because of the way PARCC works. No longer will a focus on ‘test-prep strategies’ such as ‘eliminate one answer you know is wrong and guess from the remaining possibilities’ work.”

Really?

First of all, it’s interesting that Wright is so quick to dismiss traditional test-taking strategies like answer elimination, especially given that such a practice actually requires students to think critically about the options presented and use the process of elimination to arrive at the best answer. Also, PARCC assessments still do include multiple-choice questions (although it is true that some require that students choose more than one answer per question), so I’m not sure why Wright feels discussions about answer-elimination will suddenly disappear.

But more importantly, how long does it take to explain such a strategy to children? Have any schools shaped curricula around practicing multiple-choice answer elimination in the past? I doubt it.

Wright is, in her blurb about test prep, correct about one thing: that answer-elimination strategies will not be the “focus” of teachers’ efforts to prepare their students for PARCC assessments.

Why?

Because PARCC assessments are as much a measure of a student’s technological readiness as they are of the skills they claim to assess.

Exhibit 1: Study Island/Edmentum 

Edmentum is a program designed to ensure that students “are ready for the next generation of assessments” and are able to “achieve standards mastery with actionable data.” In recent years, districts all over the country have purchased subscriptions to Edmentum programs like Study Island, and in some cases, teachers have been directed to assign Study Island practice to students either during class time or for homework.  From the Edmentum website (emphasis mine):

Edmentum’s PARCC Preparation Bundle, featuring Study Island and Edmentum Assessments, addresses the individualized test prep needs of your learners by offering choices for students working above, at, or below grade level to ensure that every student attains academic success.

Browse virtually any education-related discussion board or social media page and you’ll understand the extent to which public school students all over the country are being assigned–and graded on–“PARCC-like” or “Smarter Balanced-like” activities and assessments, and you’ll see testimonies from frustrated teachers who are required to assign such work despite the fact that they know that their time–and their students’ time–would be much better spent in a host of different ways.

Unfortunately, Edmentum is only a small indicator of the larger problem: that there’s lots of money to be made when lots of students score below proficient on Common Core-aligned assessments and require “remediation” in the form of–you guessed it–test prep.  (That many students don’t have access to technology at home is a completely separate issue, and such students will be at a disadvantage compared to their wealthier peers and will lose more instructional time to test-prep programs like Study Island. Don’t let anyone tell you that Common Core testing will close the “achievement gap,” because the opposite is true and this is one reason why.)

But we aren’t going to test-prep for PARCC, says Ms. Wright.

Exhibit 2: “PARCC Testing Tips”–and other similar preparatory measures

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A parent recently posted this document, which was sent home with her elementary-level child, online (I’m not sure of its origins of the document or the exact grade-level it was meant for), and other parents immediately added that their own children had received similar instructions on “computer skills” and “keyboarding”–specifically so those students could prepare for the PARCC.

Is this not test-prep, Ms. Wright?

Have teachers not been directed to devote instructional time to getting students on laptops so they can learn to drag and drop, cut and paste, and use a trackpad?

Is this sort of test prep not less valuable than strategies that require students to think critically about multiple answers in order to eliminate incorrect options?

And does time spent on this sort of instruction–instead of on meaningful activities that foster critical thinking and a love of learning–not result in a “narrowing of what kids learn”?

Yes: our test prep is now focused on ensuring that students are comfortable (if that’s possible!) with the PARCC interface–and that they’re able to type quickly enough to respond to open-ended questions, manipulate a mouse, cut and paste, drag and drop, and stay calm when glitches come up.  (And glitches WILL happen; see this article, posted yesterday, which describes systems crashing, log-on problems, and program failures that plagued a New Mexico school’s attempts to administer the “controversial” PARCC test, or this article, which describes what happened when parents and community members tried to log on to practice PARCC tests at a Take the PARCC event.)

To be clear: I understand why teachers feel pressures to teach to the PARCC test, and I understand why administrators feel it necessary to direct teachers to do so–for a few reasons.

First, PARCC assessments are so different from other standardized tests that students must have a certain degree of exposure to the system’s interface in order to even be able to think about dealing with content. The PARCC system is not user-friendly (students must be able to deal with multiple tabs at once, they’re only able to see a very small portion of a text at one time, and often answers and texts cannot fit on the same screen–so students must scroll back and forth while working on one problem), and the issues it presents were overwhelming for me when I attempted the test for the first time last spring and were independent of the issues I had with the actual content and construction of the assessment. So yes–if students’ first experiences with the PARCC system comes when they sit down to take the actual assessment in March, many kids will be lost. (Also, remember that we’re already expecting high failure rates on PARCC tests.)

Secondly, and more largely, how can we expect educators to not push test-prep when the results from PARCC tests (and other Common Core-aligned tests) will be used to close schools, fire teachers, and standardize curricula?

Consider this: earlier in the week, NY governor Andrew Cuomo said that he wants standardized test scores to count for 50% of teachers’ evaluations because teacher evaluation systems are “baloney.

50%. Think about the implications of such a mandate. (And see Jersey Jazzman for more on Cuomo’s failures with regard to education.)

While the weight of test scores on teachers’ evaluations in New Jersey isn’t that high (yet), Race to the Top requires test scores to factor into teachers’ evaluations. Funding is tied to this mandate.

But again, this testing craze doesn’t promote teaching to a test. Right?

I wonder: if Ms. Wright were a classroom teacher with students who were scheduled to take the PARCC in a couple of months–and if her livelihood depended on her students’ test scores–would she think differently about the “test prep” she assures concerned citizens won’t happen with PARCC?

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “PARCC requires a new and unprecedented kind of test prep

  1. In GA we also had a systems test for our “PARCC-like” tests being introduced in April. Our local parent and teacher advocacy group writes about it here:
    http://www.pactwithtact.org/#!Georgia-we-have-a-problem/ceej/4C1E5206-650E-4615-A5EA-F1945385D18D

  2. funny…Patricia Wright presented at one of the study commission’s meetings..she “briefed the Study Commission
    on the process of designing a comprehensive assessment system,
    which focused on assessment of learn ing, assessment as learning, and assessment for learning. She discussed the purposes of state assessments, including school improvement, accountability, monitoring statewide academic achievement, and national comparisons. She also operationally defined formative, interim, and summative assessments and discussed how school improvement is possible only when assessment systems are properly aligned with curriculum and instruction”….coincidence…I think not….

  3. Pingback: New Jersey voters on standardized testing: ENOUGH. | teacherbiz

  4. Pingback: Free PARCC test prep delivered to your phone from your friendly NJPTA! | teacherbiz

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