For the past yearish, I’ve been involved in Raise Your Hand’s research project on a high-quality education. As part of the project, we looked at the history of and research around testing and assessments. I didn’t realize this until recently, but the pace and import of standardized testing really has changed since I was a child.
When I graduated from high school, I was handed a stack of paperwork two inches thick. I glanced at it and then filed it away in a large box that contains my childhood journals, random term papers, and other written work. I recently took out this file and discovered that the paperwork contained my academic record, an academic portfolio of my learning from K-11th grade.
As a child of the 70s and 80s, I took only a handful of standardized tests designed to measure growth and knowledge. Most of my record contains carbon copies of handwritten progress reports (“does not work up to her potential” was a common theme), with the occasional sample of art or written work, and dot-matrix print outs of testing results from the Iowa Test of Basic Skills that was commonly given at suburban elementary schools in the early 1980s. Looking through these sheets, I have a clear picture of myself as a student, of my strengths (super analytical) and weaknesses (to a fault).
When I look at my kids’ progress reports and academic records, the picture is a bit more murky. Which is surprising. It should be more clear than something that happened 30-20 years ago. And yet, my childrens’ academic records are numerical to the extreme. ISAT score: number. NWEA score: number ranges. STEP level: number. Selective Enrollment score: number. These numbers can be useful. But they are, for the most part, comparative. They tell me less about how my kids are doing as they do about how my kids are doing compared to everyone else. Do my children know more than the average American 6th, 4th, and 2nd graders? Yes. But what does this mean for them and their future success? I cannot answer that. And neither, really, as far as I can see, do the test results.
If test results in 3rd grade are prescriptive of future life success, why not just sort them all out then and be done with it immediately? “O brave new world, That has such people in’t!”
Yeah, no. That is, fortunately, not yet how it works in this world.
Instead, (two of) my children will take the PARCC assessment this year. I took the sample assessment for ELA for 3rd grade. It is hard. I remember taking the ACT in 1991 as a high school junior, and I think the types of reading comprehension questions I answered then were easier than the exercises that the PARCC asks 8- and 9-year-olds to complete. If my conclusion, based on this exercise, is that I am dumber than the average 8-year-old, I can only imagine the effect such tests will have on the average 8-year-old. And I’m not the only adult struggling with the PARCC practice exam. And we’re only parents. At least one school board is also struggling with the validity and need for administering the PARCC.
At this stage of the game, it’s difficult for me to tell whether the PARCC assesses Illinois State Learning Standards (a/k/a CCSS) or the PARCC drives and reinforces the implementation of those standards. And I’m also unsure when and how my children are going to need to employ “Close Reading Strategies,” and other such tricks, to navigate their daily lives.
What are Close Reading Strategies? They are ways of interpreting the in-text illustrations that accompany fiction passages and answering questions about them both in the PARCC practice exam. Reader, I only learned this yesterday at a parent-education workshop at my children’s school.
My heart sunk as I climbed the stairs to the third floor. Although I’ve known and admired that our school administration uses data to inform its decision-making, a workshop to address PARCC-required strategies feels like something else. To be fair, it is entirely possible that my fellow parents asked for such specificity. But for me, it’s a bit of a downer to realize that my school appears, in fact, to be engaging in test prep. Or, as Illinois superintendent Dr. Chris Koch said of the Illinois State Learning Standards during a September 9th Illinois PTA call, “teachers can teach to these new expectations.”
I’m not sure I can subject my children to nine hours of PARCC. I enjoy a good brain challenge, but after a couple of rounds of “which of these things is not like the other?” in word and picture form, I reached the “Write an essay on this story, using supports from the text” portion of the sample and closed the window of the practice exam in disgust.
Last year, I made waves among my peer group by opting my children out of the ISAT. I’m not yet sure which way I will go on the PARCC, but if you are curious about it, I invite you to join me and Raise Your Hand next week, Saturday, 10/11 at the Mayfair Branch of the Public Library at 2 p.m. for a discussion of state testing and the PARCC.