Rendezvous with PARCC

The one good thing about political gridlock in Illinois is that while many other states have flown headfirst into educational reform, Illinois has moved much slower … not bad for being the President’s home state.  Today was the first time that our school administered the PARCC Test.  I was far less than impressed.

Before I go into certain details (I was required to sign a confidentiality agreement regarding the questions, so I cannot write about them in too much detail), I fully believe that students of various backgrounds can achieve.  I have had special education students go off and become scientists.  I have had students of every color and nationality go on to marvelous things (one of my former students is an assistant college basketball coach … another is a bank executive … both were amazing women of color whom I was honored to work with).At least one of my former African-American students is a professor of economics.  One of my former Latino students nominated me for a National Golden Apple Award while she was doing Pre-Law.  She’s going to become a civil right s attorney, and I pity any opposing lawyer who crosses her path.

I also believe in being tough with kids academically, but that doesn’t mean you strip them of self-esteem.  I have a student right now who asked me to write him a letter of recommendation to a fairly prestigious local engineering school.  I have tried to politely dissuade him because the letter is not going to be nice.  He didn’t ask another teacher to write that letter because he failed that class, and it is because he is intellectually lazy with great potential … generally the exact opposite of what good colleges want.  He is going to be disappointed.

I equally believe that different people do learn differently and at different rates.  There is nothing wrong with this.  This is absolutely the single biggest draw back to the combined Common Core/Race to the Top testing program.  It is heavily based on the assumption that all student can learn everything at the same rate.

 

That said, and my language will occasionally get salty, this was one of the lowest days I have had as a teacher.  It was, conservatively, fucked up.

 

First, the internet and computers actually did work at my school.  We’ll see if this holds up for the next seven days of testing that we need to get through.  The actual sign in and start process was fairly easy, so I give credit where credit is due.

Our school had a choice, initially , of who to test:  Algebra II or Algebra I students.  Last Spring, we were told that Algebra II students would be tested.  Three months ago, that was changed to Algebra I.  Our teachers are still fighting with how to implement the Common Core standards while grappling with the book full of new initiatives related to assessment and teaching that have been proclaimed from our District Office.  In short, the students were nowhere near ready to take this test.

Secondly, the state proclaimed Algebra I and Algebra II as the options because these are classes that just about 100% of schools in Illinois actually offer.  Because they wanted to be able to compare data between schools, they chose to assess by the course instead of the class in school.  Here is the problem:

In rural Illinois, there are a lot of small schools who lack accelerated classes, so that means every freshman takes Algebra I.  At our school, quite a few kids take algebra in 8th grade, and so quite a few of our freshman start in advanced algebra, geometry, or even Algebra II.  At our school, if you are in Algebra I, it is because you didn’t take algebra in 8th grade because your math skills were poor, or you failed Algebra I as a freshman and are retaking it.  Our math department is notorious in our town for sending screaming parents out the door as kids fail because they don’t work or won’t study.  This is why our ACT score in math has been a mark of pride for the school (in Illinois, all juniors are required to take the ACT, so our strong ACT score is not a matter of weeding out week students). This is why the math department collectively freaked out when they were told three months ago that only the bottom 20% of our math students would be taking the PARCC math test.  Needless to say, none of our staff is happy that only our weakest will post scores representing our school.  We have a bad enough PR problem right now, and now we will need to deal with people howling over dreadfully low scores.  So keep in mind, if you see your local school’s PARCC scores, there’s a chance those scores mean exactly jack shit.

 

Here’s another thing I learned about the PARCC  test:  your school can elect to take the traditional paper and pencil format, or the computerized format.  You are thinking:  yeah, but they are essentially the same … no, they are not!

The paper and pencil test is the usual:  you get a test booklet, a scantron form with lovely bubbles, a time limit, and off you go.

The computerized version is different.  First, it is 90 minutes.  That’s a long fucking test!  When I was in high school, we had 3 hour long finals, but that was a fairly hand-picked group of students.  When I sat for my administrative boards, no part of the test was longer than 60 minutes.  90 minutes is a long time to have to focus … especially for a math test when you are not really good at math.  Don’t worry, as we learned, the kids didn’t have to stay focused for 90 minutes.

The computerized version also has what we term acceleration.  Students all see different questions (the computer picks randomly from a bank).  As you get questions correct, the computer draws from an increasingly difficult bank.  However, if you get a certain amount wrong, the test ends.  This hardly seems like a good way to assess students, but this is something that a lot of parents don’t realize:  if your kid is taking this  test, and their screen suddenly changes color and informs you that your test is over, you might as well put a dunce cap on the kid.  Kids are required to close their computer laptops upon completion, and completion is akin to telling everyone how well you did.  If you are done in 10 minutes, everyone knows you didn’t do so well.  If you are still working after an hour, you must be pretty smart.  Thus, while your actual score remains confidential, how well you do relative to your class is absolutely not confidential.

The test today was given in two parts (90 minutes, 10 minute break, then 75 minutes).  In the first test, the last person was “done” after 35 minutes.  Over half the class was done between 15 and 20 minutes.  It was farcical!  Some kids sat there doing nothing for well over an hour because the computer essentially told the student and the class “you are too dumb at math to continue”.  For legal reasons, we couldn’t allow the kids to talk or shorten the testing period.

While the kids were on break, they discovered what we already knew … not everyone took the same length test.  Some kids only took 11 questions before the computer flipped them the finger.  Others took 20 questions.  They also figured out:  if you get more questions wrong, your test is shorter.  This particular group of kids may not be really good at math, but they are plenty smart enough to know how to take advantage of a glaring, obvious, loophole.  When the second test started, five students were done within in under 8 minutes.  They figured out that the quickest way to get to sleeping was to answer the questions wrong, and end the test.  I suspect that even some of the kids who genuinely tried eventually just got tired and gave up this way.  The test does not affect them in any way.  It only effects the school and starting year after next, it will be used to evaluate the teachers.

The next time someone accuses a teacher of whining about this new evaluation and testing system, I figuratively want to commit a random ninja act of violence to their precious brain.  I’ve been trying to think of ways to compare this evaluation system to other evaluation systems over the past few months, but I can’t find one that has ever been done like this.  I now completely understand why the elementary teachers have been in a state of suicidal depression and talking to me about kids breaking down and crying over these things.  Until enough parents start threatening politicians at the polls, your kids are going to be treated as guinea pigs in an experiment – your kids are valuable to the state as a source of data.  When did we start looking at kids that way and thinking that it was correct?

As for the questions … that was the real travesty.  I would be the first to say that the testing system could be sound, if the questions were in any way indicative of what any and all freshman math students should know.  As promised, almost all of the questions were not standard math questions as much as they were application questions.  That’s good!  However, there is a fucking Pacific Ocean sized gulf between what most reasonable people think every (all … not just accelerated, not even just average) freshman kid should know in math and what the people who designed Common Core and the PARCC test think.  Don’t get me wrong … I think a truly accelerated math student would probably love this and eat it alive.  Hell, they would love trying to see who could keep their computer open the longest, answering the most questions before getting eliminated.  But when I saw physics questions on this test that were at the bare minimum accelerated junior level physics questions, if not actually AP level applied algebra questions, that is when I declare this shit out of bounds!  There were questions that I saw that my second year senior physics students would struggle with (these are kids ranging from precalc and calc).  They could get them, but it would not come easily, and it would take time.  For kids who decidedly had very poor math skills, I could easily see that giving up was a perfectly cromulent decision.  Since we teachers are not being assessed on these results this year, I’m not worried today about what these test do to me, but I was viscerally angry that these kids who are a bit vulnerable got thrown into this like cannon fodder.  Today these kids, still new to the high school experience and still with an opportunity to turn things around, got taught a valuable lesson:  you are too stupid for math, and giving up is probably the most logical alternative for you.  If someone knows the educational value in that, please let me know.  My three college degrees and 22 years experience working with and caring for students offers me no insight to this approach.

Going back:  a lot of our kids gave up and finished quickly.  If your school gave the paper and pencil version of the test, congratulations!  Your kids likely got to take the whole thing, and statistically will score higher because a computer didn’t stop them with a “FUCK YOU DUMB KID” message after 11 questions.  Even though this is obvious to anyone, rest assured that this will not stop governments and companies from comparing schools.  In their eyes, the tests are close enough.  If you happen to see newspaper lists of school test scores, keep that in mind.

Because we also administered the ACT today, we lost the whole school day.  For the next four days, we are losing two hours a day for testing.  In May, we will lose 8 more hours to testing.  That’s 16 hours of testing for data that will be used in ways it can’t possibly be valid for.  over lunch, we estimated that this testing roughly costs our district $200,000 in salary for teachers and staff (we didn’t add in administrator salaries for this, and we didn’t add in the time to get trained in the computer systems.  That also didn’t count the money actually paid out to give the test (the state mandates it, the school pays for it … that is an unfunded mandate).  That also doesn’t include the lost instructional time, time to meet with students, time to lesson plan, time to do all of that.

 

This may be a bit of a whiny rant, but I hope you will see that there is logic to what I say, and that if my rant is a bit emotional, it is for good reason.

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