First Person

Against PARCC: an argument in response to Elaine Gantz Berman

Proponents of the controversial Common Core aligned PARCC test suggest that it is a “more rigorous” standardized test and will create better students. But a closer look at supporters’ claims raises many questions.

First of all, the “rigor” of the exams has proven difficult to measure, as only samples of the PARCC test questions have been released.

Colorado mandated that all schools administer the PARCC test without knowing exactly what is on the test, as even state officials only have access to sample questions, and not the questions that students themselves will face.

PARCC is a new, unproven, unfunded, state-wide test to be taken on computers, multiple times per year.  The test has been adopted by many states across the nation, thereby rendering it a national test of sorts.  The states that have adopted the Common Core Standards and PARCC, have done so under federal pressure — states could not receive Race To The Top (RTTT) funding without doing so.

Since the inception of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), we have been adding to the pile of standardized tests that our students must hurdle over. We overuse and over-emphasize standardized tests. PARCC adds to the problem, with lost classroom time, exorbitant cost– some districts are spending millions of dollars on the infrastructure and computers necessary to take this PARCC test — and high-stakes pressure on both students and teachers alike.

But where is the evidence that this reliance on standardized tests is producing better outcomes for our students? Despite this increase in the use of standardized tests, postsecondary remediation rates continued to climb from 2012 to 2013.

Colorado began field-testing PARCC last week. Colorado teachers have been leaving feedback on both the PARCC exams and the TCAPS on the website Testing Talk; the reviews are not positive. New York piloted the PARCC field test earlier this year and also found multiple problems; the results there showed that under Common Core-aligned tests, the achievement gap actually widens.

Standardized tests fail to accurately measure knowledge; rather, results can be predicted based on income and race. . The tests are snapshots, and don’t take into account other factors: ability to navigate a computer; having an “off” day, being tired/sick; having issues outside the classroom, etc. High school GPAs are a more reliable predictor of college readiness than the SAT, another prominent standardized text. And, as per American Statistical Association (ASA) findings, evaluating teachers based on students’ standardized test scores is highly questionable.

Coloradans are fed up with standardized testing. Parents are now taking a stand, opting their students out of the exams. They know PARCC tests are predicted to take longer and can be given up to four times per year. By comparison, the TCAPS are administered only once a year.

In a landmark vote, the Colorado State Board of Education (SBE) recently  voted against PARCC testing in our state, and has asked the state legislature to repeal the law requiring PARCC assessments. The board agrees that testing is excessive and has commissioned a study on the amount and types of assessments used in Colorado classrooms. A bill currently in the General Assembly, HB14-1202, which was intended to allow schools alternatives to the PARCC tests, was weakened after political pressure and has morphed into another study on Colorado’s assessments. A similar bill that would have delayed the implementation of PARCC and Common Core, SB14-136, was killed earlier this season by the same political parties. A proposed amendment to HB14-1202 proposes to delay PARCC, keeping TCAPs, for one year. One more year of TCAP would give Colorado educators and families time see what PARCC is and if we want it for our state. This delay would not cost the state additional money.

Common Core and PARCC also help schools and districts collect data, of all sorts — not just academic. This video from the White House Education Datapalooza shows how companies like Pearson (who made the PARCC test) collect “hidden” data on children, “by tagging every sentence, down to the atom.”

The Colorado Department of Education (CDE) captures this data and more from other tests and observations including home life, mental health, behavioral, pictures and videos taken throughout the school year, and packages the data, creating a “single golden record” for each student that combines data from schools and school districts, workforce and social service agencies, and corrections agencies. Watch the CDE video here.

This data collection happens without parents’ approval. Parental consent is not necessary; in fact, parents cannot prohibit their child’s data being collected or shared, often with third party vendors.  A Fordham University study finds “there are serious deficiencies” in student data security; the data is not safe and can be breached. Lawsuits, such as one from the public interest research center EPIC’s, challenge this data collection and the weakened FERPA regulations.

This government document explains that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) laws were changed and can now be bypassed.  You can find the exact words in this clip.

Student profiling often happens in other countries – Singapore, for instance:

“Singapore’s government instituted the practice of streaming (or tracking) students based on their academic ability from elementary school onward. After six years of primary-school education, Singaporean students take a test that determines whether they’ll be placed in a special school for the gifted, a vocational school or a special education program, and another test later determines their higher-ed options.”

This tracking sounds eerily like what CDE and the White House have described as their goals for American children. Obtaining this type of personal and predictive, behavioral data without parental consent is clearly questionable. In fact, Nevada Department of Education allowed parents to opt out of their Common Core-aligned field tests due to concerns over data collection and privacy.

What is the answer to all this testing madness? To stop. Why rush into PARCC? Are there special interests and politics at play? If we feel we need rigorous standardized tests, why not rigorously review them before implementing?

Fordham University’s Chester Finn believes PARCC will wither away and be replaced by something else. In fact, seventeen states have backed out of these Common Core-aligned tests. Colorado could make its own state assessment based on what our teachers actually teach.

Whatever the test, students should take it much less frequently. High performing countries like Finland take only one standardized test in high school. Why not find a balance and test only a portion of students, staggering the tests at different grades? Rather than test every child, every year, we could follow the respected NAEP protocol of random sampling.  Too much classroom time is lost preparing for and taking so many of these high-stakes standardized tests.  Testing is not teaching: let teachers teach.

Allow teacher and parent input, and keep our decisions local. Colorado is a local control state. Give control back to our school boards and teachers, where it belongs. Our state legislators hold this power. We, the taxpayers and voters, hope they will support CDE and the people of Colorado. Repeal or at least delay the PARCC exams, review standards, require parental consent on children’s data.

We also call upon Governor Hickenlooper to sign legislation if sent to him. In a recent interview with Mike Rosen, the Governor, at 27 minutes, agreed that testing is excessive and said he would be willing to help delay PARCC, involving parents in the process. Hickenlooper went on to say, “We can opt out of all kinds of things in Common Core.”

Thank you, Governor. We sincerely hope that the General Assembly will send you such a bill and that you will follow through.

Editor’s Note: This First Person article is in response to a previous First Person article written by State Board of Education member, Elaine Gantz Berman.

This post is endorsed by the following people and organizations:

Cheri Kiesecker, Fort Collins, Colorado

Kristin Tallis, Fort Collins, Colorado

Aimie Randall, Loveland, Colorado

Steve Yon – Castle Rock CO

Kari Newsom – Littleton CO

Adelia Darlene Herrera – Larkspur CO

Eric Lee Herrera – Larkspur CO

Justin Collier Herrera Larkspur CO

Crystal Coleman – Castle Rock CO

Maren Kay Neises – Larkspur, Co

Mary Denise Babcock – Littleton CO

Karla Mount – Castle Rock CO

Matt Wiebe, Fort Collins, Colorado

Deanna Masciantonio-Miller, Kiowa, Colorado

Belinda Seville, Centennial, Colorado

Ryan Smith, Kiowa, Colorado

Courtney Smith, Kiowa, Colorado

Candy Putch, Elizabeth, Colorado

Cameron Rau, Loveland, Colorado

Elodji Means, Elizabeth , Colorado

Kimerly Lutte, Elizabeth , Colorado

William Lutter, Elizabeth , Colorado

Dr. Dave Barton, Castle Rock, Colorad

Kathy Welch,Colorado Springs, Colorado

Connie Miller, Kiowa, Colorado

Matt Kaiser, Elizabeth , Colorado

Kelly Kaiser, Elizabeth , Colorado

John Seville -Elizabeth , Colorado

Kathryn Seville – Loveland, Colorado

Natalie Adams, Littleton, Colorado

John Sampson, Strasburg School Board, Colorado

Julie Williams, Jefferson County School Board, Colorado

Rudy Zitti, Fort Collins, Colorado

Elizabeth McManus, Elbert , Colorado

Judith Casey, retired Elementary Principal, 54 yers public Education, Colorado Springs

Heidi Wolfgang, Canon City, Colorado

Jennifer Raiffie, Denver, Colorado

Toni Walker, Loveland, Colorado

Katrina Kochim, Grand Junction, Colorado

Maureen Sielaff, Littleton, Colorado

Cathy Gardino, Falcon, Colorado

Sheila Brown, Arvada, Colorado

Barb Hulet, Olathe, Colorado

Anita Stapleton, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Mike Stapleton, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Angelique Matthews, Colorado Springs

Jack Matthews, Colorado Springs

Stephanie Engel, Milliken, Colorado

Deborah Scheffel, Colorado Board of Education

Senator Vicki Marble, District 23, Colorado

Representative Chris Holbert, District 44, Colorado

Representative Justin Everett, District 22, Colorado

Representative Dan Nordberg, District 14, Colorado

Core Concerns, Northern Colorado

Stop Common Core Colorado

Coloradoans Against Common Core

Parents’ Voice for JeffCo

Northern Colo. Parents Against Common Core

Fremont County RE-1

SchoolReform.CO

Stop Common Core Colorado

Parent Led Reform National

Parent Led Reform Colorado

United Opt Out National

Uniting4Kids

 

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.