The Great Assessment Debate

August 5, 2015

There has been quite a flurry of debate over educational assessments in general recently. Today I am here to counter the arguments against PARCC, the assessment attached to the Common Core. From what I have seen there are 4 objections: 

 

1. Our kids are over assessed. It’s all they do.

2. The test is hard.

3. The test is stressful because it isn’t just multiple guess. The kids have to write.

4. Teachers are having to teach to the test which takes away even more time from what the kids really need to be learning.

 

Our kids are over assessed. It’s all they do.

 

It’s true that we are living in an era of obscene obsession with quantitative assessment. It’s happening everywhere but it is most problematic in education. Parents and politicians demand accountability and transparency from educators. The only way educators have of showing in quantitative terms that what they are doing is in fact effective is to assess the students progress objectively. The only way to do that is to get them to take written tests. Prior to developing and instituting the Common Core, schools used a variety of testing services to track student progress and compare their students to those in other schools, other school systems, and other states. Since there was no national standard test, schools often chose to assess using more than one in order to be able to compare more widely. 

 

The PARCC test is supposed to replace those assessments. One reason is that the PARCC test actually tests the students on the curriculum they are supposed to be learning, the Common Core. Tests developed by other states test the skills and knowledge in THAT STATE’s curriculum which may or may not coincide with the curriculum in your state. Another reason is that since everybody who is using the Common Core should be teaching the same Common Core skills everybody should be able to easily compare their students’ progress in those areas with the students in every other state that is using the Common Core. There really isn’t any need to keep the other assessments, except that schools cannot compare this year's second graders with last year's second graders if they change tests. But how important IS that really? In my opinion, it’s just not.

 

2. The test is hard.

 

Yes. The test IS hard. It needs to be hard.

 

One reason is that if you want to know if your teaching method is effective or not you have to be able to compare students’ proficiency before and after they participated in a program. If you make the test so that everyone can easily demonstrate proficiency BEFORE the program, you don’t learn anything and neither do the students. After all, what’s the point of spending class time teaching something that all of the kids are already good at? You have to test them on things they shouldn’t be able to do so that you can see the progress they have made by doing the program when you test them on the same stuff afterward and compare the data. Since the Common Core is just starting to be used, of course the test is going to be really hard. If the program is effective, the test should become somewhat easier on some levels for most students. But there are still going to be questions they cannot complete easily because those questions are pre-test questions as opposed to post-test questions.

 

Also, the purpose of assessments is not to make students feel good. The idea that all students should be made to think that they will always succeed at everything without even trying very hard is another serious problem that parents inject into education. It creates endless problems for teachers and administrators alike. It is not super effective parenting either. It is much more useful in preparing your child for life to teach them that failure is simply a symptom of having truly stretched oneself. Without failing, you have no idea where your upper boundary of what you are currently capable lies. You learn nothing because you constantly stick within your comfort zone. There is no room for creativity either. To be truly creative. you have to be able to just throw something at the wall and see if it sticks without being concerned about saving face. We have to stop punishing kids for not being perfect.

 

And let’s not forget that these assessments aren’t actually assessing a student’s value or how hard they worked. It is assessing how proficient they are in one moment in time in a specific set of learning objectives. It is supposed to be giving educators information they need to be able to make their programs more effective. This ties in with the next complaint.

 

3. The test is stressful because it isn’t just multiple guess. The kids have to write.

 

Yes. The kids do have to write and think. It is not just about regurgitating facts and formulas that have been drilled and memorized. That’s because the Common Core is not about drilling and memorizing endless lists of facts and formulas. It is about critical thinking skills, reading comprehension, listening comprehension, the ability to reason, to create logical arguments, to find necessary information, to evaluation the validity of a resource, and the ability to communicate effectively in writing. You cannot test these skills with multiple choice tests. They will take more time but they will demonstrate proficiency in more important skills.

 

This brings me back to the point I was making before. The test doesn’t have to be so stressful. The test itself in fact is not stressful. It is the emotional atmosphere created by the surrounding adults that makes it stressful. This is where I come back to parents because we are at the root of the problem. Our demand for accountability and transparency for and by teachers means that these assessments have been tied to very unfair consequences for teacher, administrators and school. The assessment is supposed to be a tool educators use to make sure they are moving in the right direction but it has become part of penal system. Teacher are not able to simply see where their students are excelling and where they are struggling and make the necessary adjustments. Now they have to be concerned about being docked pay or even losing their jobs if the “right scores” don’t come back. By insisting on “accountability”, we have actually made it harder and more stressful for teachers to do what they actually already did very well. Are there a few crappy teachers out there? Of course, but the great majority are not. The great majority are professionals who have taken the time to learn about learning, to connect with every child in their over-crowded classroom, and to individualize lessons so that every student is getting what they need (which is often spelled out in an IEP). So of course, teachers and administrators are stressed out about these tests. And try as they might, they are not going to be able to insulate the children from that stress. We, parents, add to that by making the results of the test about the value of our children’s academic achievement which translates in their minds to their personal value. The truth is that some kids will not have to try hard at all and will pick things up and demonstrate a high level of proficiency on the test. Other kids will have to work very hard to acquire these skills and demonstrate a high level of proficiency. Others still will work very hard and will still not be very proficient. The score on the test does not correlate with the amount of effort put in by student or teacher. The only way the score is useful is if it tells the teacher who needs extra help on what so that they can provide that. We have to take the “accountability” out of the equation. It is hurting our educators and it is indirectly hurting our children.

 

4. Teachers are having to teach to the test which takes away even more time from what the kids really need to be learning.

 

This is just totally bogus. As I have explained above, an assessment is useless if it is not assessing what the students are supposed to be learning. This was true of the other assessments schools had been using since they were developed by other states. The Californias, for example, were developed by the state of California to assess their students’ progress learning the State Curriculum Standards of California. The Iowas were developed by the state of Iowa to assess their students’ progress learning the State Curriculum Standards of Iowa. So when New Jersey students take these tests in order to be able to compare them to students in other states also taking the test they were at a disadvantage because they were not being tested on the same standards that were in the New Jersey State Curriculum. When accountability was introduced in the Bush years, this meant that teachers had to choice but to start teaching to the test. The PARCC test is different though.

 

The PARCC test IS the national standard test that schools were previously lacking. The PARCC test is designed to assess the skills in the Common Core. If a state is administering the PARCC, it is because they have instituted the Common Core in their state. So the students are supposed to be learning the skills the test is testing. Period. There is no “teaching to the test” that does not overlap with the standards the teachers are supposed to be teaching anyway. You know where that happens? That’s right, with the OTHER assessments the schools refuse to let go of. But the PARCC is taking the brunt of the opposition for absolutely no good reason.

 

What’s the answer? 

 

Get rid of the the other outdated assessments and commit fully to the Common Core.

Get rid of penalties for teachers based on the “students’ test scores”.

Stop tying test scores to student’s self worth. This means you need to stop bragging about how YOUR child scored in the 99th percentile across the board. In fact, what about not even showing test scores to parents at all? It’s not really for us anyway. The only reason we feel the need to know is because we don’t trust our teachers. If we are truthful with ourselves and are involved in our children’s lives, we already know if you children are thriving or struggling in school on general or in certain subjects.

Stop trying to dismantle what’s good about what we are doing and focus on fixing the problems.

 

We need to work together…for the sake of our children.

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