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What will PARCC Testing do to our Teachers?



Published in ChicagoNow, October 6, 2014 (cartoon by Marcia Liss)


Yesterday was World Teacher Day. In an ironic twist, an article in the New York Times proclaimed, “In Washington State, Political Stand Puts Schools is a bind…Federal Fund Diverted After Refusal to Tie Teacher Ratings to Test Scores.”


That’s right – because the state chose a different system for evaluating its teachers, Arne Duncan and the Department of Education are punishing Washington State schools. If they do not have 100% of their kids at grade level and above on the tests mandated by the Common Core curriculum, the schools are designated “failing.” So a school with a low-income population that raised its pass rate from 20% to 70% in the last three years is now a failure. In fact, 90% of public schools in Washington State, some in very fancy neighborhoods, are now failures.


Given the consequences, why would the state legislature in Washington choose not to evaluate teachers using student test scores? And why would thousands of schools in California, Iowa, Vermont, and Wyoming join them? Because, despite being punished by the Department of Education with the loss of funds and a mountain of paperwork required for failing schools, some folks are honorable enough not to play the game.


That game goes something like this: You agree to implement Common Core Sate Standards. You subject the kids to massive amounts of high stakes standardized tests, and you use those test scores to evaluate their teachers. If you follow the rules of the game, you get a waiver from the 100% proficiency requirement of No Child Left Behind. If not, you become an instant failure.


Since most states, including Illinois, are playing the game, what are the consequences for our teachers? By spring, teachers have to administer the PARCC exam to their students. PARCC stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. You can read more about it HERE. Standardized test results determine which teachers are good and which are poor. Teachers are struggling to understand what this new test requires and how to elicit the best scores from their students.


When I have written in the past about the need for more teacher training, what I did not envision was spending an entire year training teachers on how to administer the PARCC exam to their students. But that is exactly what passes for good teacher in-service these days.


Granted, the issues involved in assessing teachers are complex. But I am convinced there are better ways to determine what constitutes good teachers than the standardized test scores of their students.

I’m not alone in thinking this. Researchers back me up. Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond and other leading education research experts argue that tying the evaluation of teachers to standardized testing is highly unfair and inaccurate. I encourage you to look at her writing on this topic.


Diane Ravitch agrees in Reign of Error. She points out that because students who have special needs or are English language learners bring down test scores, teachers who choose to teach our most vulnerable children are punished. The instability of teacher evaluation that is based on students’ test scores has also been well documented. Ms. Ravitch cites the example of the “worst” teacher in New York City (and this was printed in the newspapers to compound her humiliation) who was a teacher of new immigrants who left her class as they became proficient in English. Her principal believed she was an excellent teacher, but the math just didn’t add up.


A report from the National Education Policy Center entitled Can We Reverse the Wrong Course on Data and Accountability, concluded:


“Expertise has no algorithm. Wisdom does not manifest itself on a spreadsheet. Numbers must be the servant of professional knowledge, not its master. Educators can and should be guided and informed by data systems; but never driven by them.”

I have written about this issue many times and agree that we need a way to evaluate teachers. We want to help them improve their teaching, and we want to find a way to keep teachers who are not effective with our children from starting or continuing to work in our schools. We want master teachers to remain in the profession and to serve as mentors for others.


But in my core, after being a teacher for seven years and supervising teachers for 25 years, I still firmly believe that teaching is a calling and good teaching is an art. As wonderful as it may seem to find an objective mathematical formula for evaluating teachers, people who have worked with teachers over a period of time will tell you they can identify good teachers by watching them with children. Parents and children can always identify them – they just know.


People don’t enter the teaching profession to become wealthy, gain prestige, or come home feeling serene at the end of the day. They arrive long before the first bell rings to prepare and leave much later in the day than anyone imagines. They spend countless hours at home planning curriculum and looking over children’s work. If a child or their classroom is without something, they buy it. And the good ones possess an intangible quality that cannot be measured by complicated mathematical models tied to student test results.


If you want to see how our teachers are being trained under the current educational climate, check out the professional development session featured in Valerie Strauss’s The Answer Sheet blog in The Washington Post in which Chicago educators are forced to parrot back the “right” answers. It’s pretty humiliating.


Instead of wasting this whole year teaching educators to teach to and administer the PARCC exam, we could be focusing on best educational practice. Instead of grading teachers on the test scores of their students, we could actually be observing them and helping them to reflect on ways they could improve.


In August, Arne Duncan described testing as, “sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools.” He also implied that student test performance should just be one of many factors in teacher evaluation. And yet he is punishing Washington State for not buying into test scores as a primary way to assess its teachers.



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by Laurie Levy
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