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PARCC Test Fails Kids Again

From Raise Your Hand Illinois

Published in ChicagoNow, September 17, 2015

Parents, brace yourselves. The results are in and only 30-40 percent of the students (depending on grade level and subject) who took the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) standardized tests last spring have passed. The Chicago Tribune describes the scores as a “troubling picture.” It’s time to start the blame game.

When I gave a test as a high school English teacher that resulted in poor scores, there were three logical conclusions I could draw:

1. The students had not studied enough for the test.

2. I had failed to teach the material well.

3. The test was poorly constructed, unfair, or too tricky.

I tended to think the best of my students. Most of them wanted to please me and do well. Perhaps they could have studied harder, but if they were paying attention in class, even if they didn’t study as hard as they could, they should have been able to pass my test. If half of them failed my test, I would have never have blamed my students.

The second conclusion was always possible. Perhaps I didn’t teach the material well enough and I was the person to blame for the poor test results. In that case, getting immediate feedback by grading the exam myself showed me what I needed to review with my students. I also had to think about how I had presented the curriculum. Did I need to adjust my methods to reach more of my students? Had I done enough to make the material accessible to my students?

In some cases, the third conclusion was the correct one. The students had been attentive in class and I had presented the material well. But I had created a bad test. It was not a measurement of what students had learned. I had to admit the test itself was flawed and blame a poorly constructed exam for the disappointing scores.

I share this story because I was not surprised by the recent Chicago Tribune headline, “State superintendent letter warns schools to brace for PARCC results.” I was also not surprised that the majority of students failed PARCC.

Illinois Superintendent of Education Tony Smith had warned school principals and administrators that the results of last spring’s controversial PARCC exam would be “dismal.” The test was so long and computer-dependent that an unknown percentage of kids opted out of taking it. Evidently, those who did take it performed very poorly. Dismal is an understatement for these scores.

According to Smith, “I do not want anyone to use these results to shame teachers or schools.” Prior to administering PARCC, Illinois used ISAT tests, which 40% of our children failed. Words like dismal and shame don’t come close to describing a failure rate of more than half of our kids. If we are not to blame children, teachers, or schools for such a high failure rate, we have to consider the third possibility. We must blame the PARCC test.

At present, there are only six or seven states left clinging to the PARCC Consortium, depending on if Massachusetts withdraws. Unfortunately, Illinois is one of them. In 2010, 26 states belonged. The other large testing consortium, Smarted Balanced, is also shedding members.

I spent too much time last year blogging about why I thought PARCC was a poor test. In October, I shared my concerns that PARCC would be demoralizing to kids with special needs and harmful to the self-esteem of typical kids as well. I worried about the misuse of the test scores for teacher evaluation.

By January, I shared how my community of Evanston grappled with asking the State for a waiver. Our schools were not prepared and did not have the technology in place, and PARCC was too long and would drive the curriculum by forcing educators to teach to the test. I also shared the complicated politics of obtaining a waiver or opting out of the exam. By the end of the month, I was begging the powers that be in Evanston to follow Chicago’s example and refuse to administer PARCC. Unfortunately, because of threatened loss of federal funds, Chicago was forced to back down, and Evanston never sought a waiver.

In February, I asked,

“Just how should a student with special needs that include significant communication and anxiety disorders express his desire to opt out of the PARCC exam? Will throwing his laptop across the room count? How about banging his head on his desk? Does he need to scream or cry or become so dysregulated that he spends the entire school day in the Occupational Therapy room? Will the school then rinse and repeat, day after day, in an effort to administer a flawed and meaningless test?”

The injustice of forcing children with special needs to take an exam with no reasonable accommodations in place was heartbreaking. Expecting children to opt themselves out of taking PARCC rather than allowing their parents to do it stripped parents of their rights and discriminated against children who were unable to make this request.

I tried to share in March how ridiculous many of the rules surrounding administering PARCC were. And I was irate about how families who wanted to opt out were stigmatized and how schools were bullied into giving this exam.

Then the students took the exam. It took a large chunk of time away from instruction. In many schools, computers could only be used to prepare for and administer PARCC rather than for educational purposes. The expected glitches happened. Schools had no alternative educational plan for children who opted out. And 60 to 70 percent of our children failed.

That the results of PARCC just came out with school already underway is absurd. If the test were valid and helpful in understanding what individual kids need to learn, shouldn’t the results have been ready before the school year started? That way, teachers would have known how to individualize instruction to help their students. But of course, we all know that was never the point. What will matter in the end is how the kids’ raw scores are manipulated to fit into five categories of proficiency, and what percentage of students passed. So much time, money, and effort to yield… what?

I return to my original three conclusions about tests. I think most students and teachers tried their best with PARCC. So, I must go with the third conclusion. PARCC is a bad test.


by Laurie Levy
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