A recent staff meeting was interesting. We had been asked by our principal to take a PARCC practice test (at least part of one) ahead of time so that we, as a staff, could have a discussion about it at this staff meeting. My principal is someone who I would not consider to be a drinker of corporate reform Kool-Aid, but who also seems to be, in my opinion, only somewhat aware of the larger issues involved in corporate education reform. He is the kind of person who doesn’t like to dwell on what he has “no control over.” That is an amiable quality in most cases and has helped us focus more on what we can and should do much of the time, rather than get overly frustrated with the nonsense that has been flooding into our daily existence as teachers. But this time, it was hard to focus on getting “past” the outrage.
The teachers couldn’t get over how HARD the tests were. I will say that I never heard the word “rigorous.” Not once. There had been those who, when the standards were first published, had taken a look at them and actually liked their organization. They thought that it “made sense” to start at kindergarten and have the standards “spiral upward” from one grade to the next (yet they were DESIGNED BACKWARD from college level down to kindergarten). In professional development book groups, these same teachers had been engaged in reading about and discussing how to transition from the current set of state teaching standards to the new Common Core $tate $tandards and were pretty gung-ho about the mission of getting ready for “what was coming.” Some stated that we “had no choice” because the new standards were “the law” and “were here to stay.” After all, we teachers seem to have it in our DNA to rise to any occasion and “make it happen,” right?
But now there was a decidedly different feel in the room. The tenor of the discussion that followed had shifted from “let’s get ‘er done” to “this is ridiculous!!!” To his credit, the principal focused the discussion by asking teachers to notice what the demands of the test were, which did two things. First, it allowed teachers to vent about all the “major issues” they saw with the test. Second, he prepared us for the idea that we would look at those issues and see what was “within our control” to address through common sense instruction. Again, to his credit, he did suggest that he really wanted to see us continue the good quality instruction that he sees currently happening all over our building. And what he did suggest is that, based on these observations, maybe there were certain shifts or certain instructional techniques that we could implement that might help kids be more successful on these test when they are forced to face them next year.
So teachers noticed issues such as:
- how sophisticated the level of text was for the grade level being tested;
- how the excerpts were taken out of the context of the story in such a way that it really put the reader at a distinct disadvantage when trying to answer the questions without enough of the story line or background knowledge about relationships between characters;
- how sometimes there seemed that there were at least two answers with supporting evidence for each that seemed like it COULD be correct and it wasn’t clear how the students were supposed to be able to figure out which one was more correct than the other, especially if we ADULTS weren’t sure;
- how there were so many questions that required the student in one way or another to find evidence from the text to support their answer choice;
- how busy the page looked and how students wouldn’t know what all of the tabs and buttons were for;
- how there was more than one scroll bar on the screen at one time so students would need to know how to scroll the text of the story differently than scrolling to see the questions on the page;
- how there could be up to three different texts that the student would have read and to be able to “keep in their head” as they thought about what the question was asking them in order to compare or to analyze;
- how testing “stamina” was going to be an issue for MANY children, even those who hadn’t typically struggled in the past;
- how there were essays that they would have to type with whatever keyboarding skills they had;
- how they would have to type their essays into a text window that may require scrolling if their answer exceeds the space provided.
After compiling the list of what was noticed about how this test is different than the previous state standardized test and briefly talking about some the things teachers could do to help get kids ready to take this new test next year, teachers couldn’t help but share the angst that had been building up ever since they had taken the practice test themselves. One teacher said that we seriously need to get ready for students who are going to be emotionally and psychologically DEVASTATED by the experience of taking this test.
Others shared their own experiences and feelings as ADULTS when they took it. One teacher said that she had taken it at a time when she was pretty tired. She figured that her fatigued condition might somewhat mimic or help her compare her mental abilities at the time of the test to what a student’s ability might be like and she said that she was seriously straining to answer the questions and couldn’t imagine how frustrated and exhausted this was going to be for the students.
Another shared how she had her OWN son, who is a math whiz, take the math practice test. She said that not only was he exhausted when he was done, but he wasn’t even sure how well he may have done on it. And yet another teacher actually asked a top engineer adult friend of hers to take a test and he didn’t see the importance or relevance of MANY of the questions on the test. He deemed it a HORRIBLE test of knowledge for ANYONE who would want to be ready for HIS career. And of course, that begs the question of, “How can ONE set of standards and ONE set of tests prepare all children everywhere for every possible career out there, including future ones that haven’t even been created yet?”
Near the end of the meeting, one of the comments that our empathetic principal made to a group of teachers that he recognized as “feeling panicked” was something like, “In New York where they have been field testing this test, their scores have dropped from around 70-80% testing proficient to around 25-30%. And historically, anytime a new test has been introduced, there has always been a drop in scores until everyone has had a chance to adjust to the changes that have been made. So just know that we won’t be the only ones experiencing these drops. It’s going to happen everywhere, across the whole country. And then something is going to have to happen so it will all wash out. They will have to do something.”
I followed up the principal’s remarks with a few of my own. I first made it clear that I was speaking 100% for myself and not for him or for anyone else. I told my colleagues that it was my opinion from all of the books I had been reading, education groups I had become members of and from conversations with other teachers all over the country that these tests and the CC$$ that we are being required to teach have been carefully designed to, in fact, PRODUCE this failure of our children. I said that the corporate backers and the politicians they have cozied up to are working together to ensure that they can continue to label our schools and us teachers as failures so that they can close our public schools and open up charter schools to come in and save the day. They plan to break our unions by replacing us horribly ineffective, veteran teachers with cheap Teach for America minimally-prepared, temporary teachers. They plan to sell all of the states that have bought into this scheme all new CC$$-aligned materials in addition to the new online tests which require upgrades of technological infrastructure in ALL schools across the country. Cha-ching!
I told them that, in MY opinion, now that they have gotten a look at this test and are beginning to see where it’s headed, that they MUST become active in the fight against these forces. I told them that I respectfully disagreed with our principal’s assertion that “it will all wash out” when people all over the country experience the same level of difficulties or failures. I said that I wanted to personally encourage each one of them to read the research that is out there that is connecting the dots between corporate billionaires and the politicians that have passed the laws that tie our evaluations to all of this nonsense. I told them that it was MY opinion that it wasn’t going to go away without a fight and that I hoped they would read books like Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools as well as Kris Nielsen’s Children of the Core and Uncommon: The Grassroots Movement to Save our Children and Their Schools. I encouraged them to search for groups to connect with so they could join with other teachers around the country to resist these destructive forces and to actively fight back to save our public school system.
Some heads were nodding as I spoke my piece. Many of them know that I have been speaking up about this for a long time. Some of my closer colleagues know that I “do my homework,” but even so some of them and many others have been waiting for it to pass, like so many other trends in education have done in the past. But I hope that after this bit of reality struck them recently, they will decide that there’s a good chance I may be right and that, in this case, it’s time to actually DO something about it!