Friday, June 26, 2015

An Open Letter to MAs DESE About Switching to PARCC

On Monday night, I attended a forum designed to accept public comment on whether Massachusetts should continue forward on its path towards adopting the PARCC exam or stay with its own MCAS exams.  This year was year two of the PARCC pilot, in which approximately 60% of districts statewide chose to switch over to PARCC for its grades 3-8 math and ELA exams that are required under Race to the Top.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay for the whole night because of a meeting at my own school that I wanted to attend.  It was also clear that because the Dept of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) invited a number of people to speak first and there was so much “public testimony” being heard, that I had little chance of speaking anyway.  

I hope that this, then, will have a chance to pass over the eyes - and minds - of those at DESE.  I can even hope that people in other states and those involved with PARCC give this a read, a level of exposure that wouldn’t happen with merely speaking at the forum, since I couldn’t “live tweet” my own testimony.


To DESE and all people who have a stake/interest in the possible transition to PARCC testing in Massachusetts and beyond:

Please accept this letter as the testimony I wasn’t able to provide last Monday during your forum at the North Shore Community College.  Although I wish you would hold these as part of your regular work and have them as an outcrop of your own desire to interact with more parents and educators, I’m happy that the governor has prompted you to hold the forums.  I’ll try to stay close to the allotted three minutes.

1) I am currently a K8 assistant principal.  Before this, I have been a high school ELA teacher and assistant principal for fourteen years.  I have worked in school districts in Maine, New York and Massachusetts.  I have seen a wide variety of standardized testing programs - and their effect on schools - before and since No Child Left Behind.  While they have some room to improve, I have always been a strong supporter of the Common Core State Standards.  While they could have great value for teaching and learning if they were designed, administered and utilized correctly, I have always been leery of standardized tests.  

2) You made an interesting point in questioning the representative from the AFT who used the term “high-stakes testing” in his testimony.  At your request, he defined “high stakes” for you as a test on which a student’s high-school graduation rests.  When you asked him why the Kindergarten and other elementary teachers he supposedly spoke to were so anxious about this test if it was a high-school graduation issue, his answer seemed extremely vague and uncertain for my taste.  I assume you know the actual answer and were just toying with him at some level, but I want to help him answer and help you understand why people refer to standardized testing as high-stakes in the era of Race to the Top.  To be clear, schools and teachers are nervous about these tests, and so many teachers and districts are moving to spend so much time teaching to and preparing for these tests because of their role in teacher evaluation plans.  You can say that this doesn’t count, that you will be measuring student growth and achievement, and that it’s going to look different for everyone, but it won’t matter.  Educators are stressed about new types of questions, new lexile levels, computer-based testing, and the overall increased amount of testing in general.  In some cases, the sense of flying blind and unprepared has left educators at an unhealthy level of anxiety.

3) Not all districts are prepared equally.  If you want something to roll out across the state and accurately measure students’ ability, you should be doing much more to ensure that all districts have a viable plan in place for curriculum shifts, materials acquisition and technology integration.  The differences between the few districts we heard from made it clear to me that your measure will be as much - if not more - about the talents of the districts’ central office personnel and building administrations than the students’ abilities.   These concerns will also, of course, drip into financial issues that will only further skew any findings.    

4) The technology alone should have cautioned all of us more than it did.  In addition to some issues the students had (especially the youngest ones) with manipulating the questions, we had an endless array of systemic, access and usage issues.  If I had been you, I would have strongly pushed for a year or two on paper and pencil before bringing in the computers.  Even if everything worked smoothly, PARCC essentially shut down our classroom technology for six weeks as our labs and carts were all taken up by testing.

5) There are some deep issues with the question formatting on PARCC, the answer for which could be a mixed-media exam that has paper essays and long-form math prompts that can still be answered on the screen.
  • Students shouldn’t be scrolling up and down to read the questions while answering them.
  • Toggling between essays and answer screens is distracting.
  • The notes taken while reading the passages ought to still be there as the final essay is written.
  • Students should be able to see their entire answer(s), and especially their entire essay(s) as they write.  The small essay boxes and condensed format for some of the fill-in-the-blank questions is unacceptable.  

6) I’m nervous about norming the writing portions nationally.  Knowing that some regions, states and districts have always been achieving at different levels than others, I wonder how long it will be before the playing field is leveled, if ever.  In NY, for example, having a state-wide Regents test for decades hasn’t normalized the achievement level between wealthy and poor districts.  

7) Finally, there are just too many testing days here.  Standardized tests can provide data for schools to use, but we shouldn’t be foolish enough to think they’re a good format for covering everything.  I couldn’t believe how much time was taken by the testing days themselves, the practice students needed to get used to the formatting, the PD for teachers around becoming prepared, the up-front set up by administration, and the day or two after the testing that teachers needed to get their classes back on track.  I know that PARCC said they are combining PBA and EOY and reducing the amount of units, but I would like to see a full reconsideration of the amount of time needed for administration.  This is especially true at a K8 school like mine, since we’re giving PARCC to 5 grade levels.  It’s just a lot of time and disruption to the school psyche.  

Yes, I believe Massachusetts ought to evolve beyond the original MCAS tests, but it ought to have been done more carefully, with a better review of test questions, a shorter initial trial period and a time to see the test before adding on the technology issues.  Please consider continuing this conversation.  You can always join #EdChatMA or #Mssaachat as ways to be in touch.  Please feel to reach out and let me know how I can help.  

Dave Hochheiser

@DavidHochheiser, #EdChatMA

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