Friday, December 19th, 2014
To test or not to test? At this point, that really isn’t a question for me. I’m refusing to allow my fifth grader to take the PARCC, the latest Common Core high-stakes test crafted by for-profit educational company Pearson. There are more than a few reasons to reconsider just going with the flow, if your child’s on tap to take these tests.
There’s little to no evidence that these tests actually mean anything. Study after study has indicated that the SAT (you know, the old gold standard for college admissions) correlates most closely with your family’s income level. (Higher income levels, unsurprisingly, meant higher SAT scores.) And the PARCC test that my daughter is supposed to spend hours taking later this year is completely unproven to measure anything—other than that the student has been coached on how to take the PARCC. (In fact, our kids are serving as the guinea pigs for this, as Pearson is still “field testing” these assessments.)
Schools are being forced to stress test prep over more important subjects. My daughter’s teacher barely has time to squeeze in science (SCIENCE!) because he’s so busy ensuring they have enough computer time to be able to effectively type essay questions for the PARCC. And after school, they’re being assigned online test prep as a homework component, in addition to a pretty extensive workload. Our schools should be focused on helping children develop creative thinking skills and mastery of subjects that actually apply to real life, so they can go on to innovate and solve the myriad problems our world is facing. Instead, they’re being drilled on multiple-choice strategy—a skill I haven’t used since I took my last standardized test more than 20 years ago. (How about you?)
They’re putting way too much pressure on our kids. Schools want to do very well on these tests to get funding—and so they’re pushing the kids hard. My daughter’s school had special workbooks dedicated to learning the NJASK (the PARCC’s predecessor), which they completed in full. And that probably explains how they scored third in the state for their NJASK scores last year. They began harping on the PARCC in earnest as soon as the NJASK was over, more than a year before the kids would even take the test. My kid’s the kind who cried for two hours when she received her first non-A on her report card—so it probably wasn’t a surprise that she was freaking out about the PARCC over the summer, when her biggest worry should have been whether she should ride bikes or run through the sprinkler. If I continue to subject my daughter to this level of stress, she’ll be needing therapy before we even get her through junior high.
These tests are extremely flawed. The very first practice question I read over my daughter’s shoulder was grammar related, requiring the student to choose the correct way to connect two separate sentences. While two of the four answer options were definitely wrong, the other two were technically correct. (As a professional writer and editor, I know my way around a sentence—but my copy-editor husband and a slew of editor friends also agreed that there were two correct answers.) My daughter selected the one that Pearson apparently deemed “incorrect.” After that experience, I decided to take a full-on PARCC practice test on my own. I have a master’s degree in magazine journalism, a Mensa-level IQ and a long and storied history of rocking standardized tests, but I did not answer every question on the fifth-grade English test correctly. How can we expect our 10-year-olds to do better?
The school systems are often required to administer the tests to children who can’t do them. A special-ed teacher I know is supposed to administer the PARCC to autistic and developmentally delayed children. They can’t read and they can’t communicate—do you really think they’re going to write an essay about the themes in a complex reading passage? You can see how one Maryland mom expressed her concerns for her special-needs son. (She appears at 1:41.00.)
The tests require significant investments in technology, and the states aren’t ponying up the cash. PARCC tests are taken online, which means that the school district needs to have enough computers to allow every student in a grade to take the test simultaneously. Our school has been grossly underfunded by the state for the past decade—and yet we had to make some pretty significant investments in new computers to ensure that they had enough to test our students. But that money had to come from somewhere: We lost foreign language teachers, and my daughter’s social studies book is older than her college-aged babysitter. What did the kids lose out on in other school districts?
There’s something rotten about the whole deal. Pearson not only makes mediocre textbooks—they are now in the business of testing whether our kids are learning anything from those books. Shouldn’t one part of this equation be independent of the other? There’s also some concern that Pearson may be in cahoots with technology companies like Apple to get some lucrative business for both parties—and the FBI has launched a criminal investigation into it. And the federal government is even pulling funding from the Common Core, just as our state is making the decision to commit to it more fully.
I’m writing my letter right after winter break to refuse to allow my child to take the tests, and I’m fortunate to live in one of the only school districts in New Jersey that is officially allowing children to opt out and have other educational experiences during test time. (Last year, many school districts forced kids who were opting out to remain in the classroom and “sit and stare” for the duration of the test—something bordering on child abuse, in my book.) I’m exercising the parental rights afforded by the Supreme Court ruling in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, which protects my fundamental right to direct the upbringing and education of my children. The Court declared that “the child is not the mere creature of the State: those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right coupled with the high duty to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.” And I hope that you’ll consider fighting against these tests, too.
Learn more about the Common Core—and what it means for your child.
Lisa Milbrand is a contributing editor to Parents.com and the blogger for In Name Only.
Image: Mighty Sequoia Studio/Shutterstock.com
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Wednesday, April 9th, 2014
As I write this, my daughter, a fourth-grader, is finishing her last day of the ELA (English Language Arts) exam of the Common Core, a new standard that is being implemented in 45 states. The purpose is to raise the level of America’s students, who don’t measure up to the international standards of other developed nations, particularly the high-achieving Asian student from China, Singapore, and Japan.
As with many big educational initiatives, including No Child Left Behind, the Common Core’s goals are laudable, but its execution is not. The problems are manifold. First, the Core is not a curriculum at all but rather a set of standards that students are expected to meet year by year, starting in third grade. That is problematic, because without being instructed in the specific skills kids are expected to master, teachers have no choice but to teach to the test, which, as we all know, is hardly the best way to learn. That they do, to the best of their ability.
But as we pointed out in Parents, teachers in New York State (which was one of the first to implement the Core last year) didn’t know until late in the game what the expectations were, so they didn’t have ample time to prepare kids for them. This year, they were better prepared for what was to come. However, this brings up the second problem: They’ve had to spend weeks—and, in many cases, months—getting kids ready for six days of testing that, depending on where they live, has a tremendous impact on their future. So in addition to regular homework, children have been bringing home practice exams to work on. And they’ve been forced to adjust the way they solve problems, lest they lose out on credit (even if they get the right answer). For example, in solving 104 divided by 4, I was told it wasn’t acceptable for my daughter to see how many times 4 goes into 10 (2) and then carry the 2, yielding an answer of 26. That’s the way my wife and I learned it, and it takes about 15 seconds (I know, because I tried it out on my daughter, who said, “This way is easy.”). But I was told this method shows an ability to calculate but not a deep understanding of processes and relationships. Instead, she needs to estimate through multiplication (4 x 10 = 40, another 4 x 10 = 40, add them up and you get 80, which leaves 24; 4 x 6 = 24; so the answer is 10 + 10 + 4 = 24). Not only does this approach take eons longer, but it’s infinitely more confusing—and, with the multiple numbers and steps involved, far more likely to result in an error that yields the wrong answer.
Let’s skip to the English, which should be a more straightforward reflection of a child’s grade-appropriate reading and comprehension. But left in the hands of a for-profit company like Pearson, which makes up the tests (not to mention the workbooks and practice exams, which, conveniently, need to be updated every year to reflect its changes in the exam), it is a mess. Pearson has free reign to do field-testing of questions at select schools, and to put “dummy” questions on the exams that don’t count and are merely used to determine their aptness for the future (which subjects kids to yet more testing). But the real issue is how the company decides what is grade appropriate. Looking through the workbook, I was shocked to find a reading passage from King Lear with follow up questions based on the text. This is one of Shakespeare’s most complicated and debated plays. I remember poring through annotations and interpretations of the text (Cliff notes, anyone?) in an attempt to understand the nuances (not to mention struggling to keep names like Cordelia, Goneril, and Regan straight). Then I saw one of the questions, which had multiple-choice options to describe what was meant by Lear’s “guilty mind”: Angry? Confused? Wasn’t he both these things? Isn’t the correct answer the subject of endless scholarly conjecture, much less something a 9-year-old should be expected to know? Then there was a passage about two men trying to escape from jail, with one worrying about whether to leave his injured buddy behind. It’s heady stuff for a child who doesn’t even watch PG movies yet.
The results of these tests are being used to evaluate schools and teachers, so neither has a choice but to play ball. And the stakes are high for students as well. In New York City, the tests are a key factor in middle school and, later, high school admission for kids (yes, you heard that right). The kids know this and feel the pressure. They stress about the tests, worrying about the results and its impact, and feeling unintelligent because some of the material is clearly beyond their level (and they’ll never know what counts and what doesn’t).
It’s little wonder that parents have pushed back. Some have decided to opt out their kids, skipping the tests altogether and facing the consequences. Others have hired tutors to help their kids get through—believe me, it’s the norm rather than the exception in my area. Still others have attended protests or blogged about the ridiculousness of some exam questions. The debate is far from over. Indeed, as more states implement it next year, I expect to see further controversy, and can only hope that adjustments are made, not only in the exams—which need a thorough overhaul, under the guidance of educational experts with a child-development background—but also in mentality. Yes, our students need to achieve at a higher level. But they won’t do it via a top-down mentality that suggests making tests harder will force them to up their game. They’ll get there by improving teacher training, and by giving schools the freedom to teach them a deeper, broader-based curriculum without being made to narrow their focus toward ill-conceived tests that, in the end, are unlikely to help them close the gap.
On Friday, our community school district will hold a demonstration expressing dissatisfaction with the nature of the ELA exams. Among the objections: The tests are not well-aligned with the Common Core Learning Standards; the questions are poorly constructed and often ambiguous; teachers are not permitted to use (or even discuss) the questions or the results to inform their teaching; and students and families receive little or no specific feedback from the test. I’ll be there, making my voice heard.
Photo of boy in school about to take a test via Shutterstock
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Big Kids, Education, Must Read, The Parents Perspective
Wednesday, January 15th, 2014
A few months ago Parents addressed the growing rebellion against standardized tests, which are taking over curriculums at elementary schools due to both No Child Left Behind and the new nationalized standards known as the Common Core. If your child isn’t in grade 3 or higher, you may be wondering what the fuss is all about. Well, I have a fourth-grader, so I know. And it isn’t pretty. Recently, my daughter was given a division problem that, at the same age, I could have done in my head. Instead, she was instructed to guesstimate using multiplication and add up the numbers again and again in a column until she came up with the right total. It took me a while to even figure out what she was doing and a good five minutes plus for her to solve it. Then I realized: She was being forced to make simple math more complicated. Why? Because it’s essential practice for the Common Core exam in the spring. Unless she used the prescribed method and showed her work, she wouldn’t get credit—even if she got the answer right. Sheesh! I love math, but I’m pretty sure if I had to do it the way she’s being taught, I’d hate it.
I’m far from the only one. Objections to the Common Core—which isn’t a curriculum, per se, but rather a set of standards our kids are expected to meet, grade by grade—are widespread. Four states have opted out, Minnesota chose not to adopt the math standards, and 20 states have experienced strong opposition, including public forums and legislative bills that attempt to reject the standards. Parent protests have become, well, a common occurrence. The emphasis on the results of a single uniform exam forces schools to teach to the test (and crowds out other subjects not measured by it). Plus, a number of observers who’ve seen the exams (or practice ones) say many of the questions are worded in a way that seems obtuse to adults, much less the kids they are targeted for. So a child who knows how to do the math can still easily get the wrong answer.
We all want our kids to achieve more in school and to be able to compete with their international peers. But whether the Common Core will truly help them do so (or even whether it will survive in its current form) is very much up for discussion. Meanwhile, if you want to hear (actually see) more arguments against its implementation, watch this video of an impassioned Arkansas mom or this one of a Tennessee high school student who believes the Core is rotten.
Young boy showing stress with schoolwork via Shutterstock
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