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.
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