Testing Gone Wild

Here in my neck of the woods of New Jersey, students in grades 3-8 have begun taking the PARCC test.  This is a standardized, computer-based assessment allegedly designed to gauge a student’s critical things skills and knowledge in language arts, math and science.  There has been controversy and opposition to this test in red, blue and purple states.  By extension, this test is an outgrowth of Common Core and if there is one thing that has united liberals and conservatives it is opposition to Common Core, albeit for different reasons.

Leaving aside Common Core, there are several reasons to dislike this test, but with a caveat.  Standardized tests play an important role since, as their name suggests, since they should gauge a student’s mastery of established standards.  Prior to PARCC, New Jersey used the NJASK which appeared to do a decent job in assessing mastery of state standards.  Common Core is not a state standard, but a national one.  It should be mentioned that New Jersey consistently placed high in most educational metrics prior to adoption of Common Core,  The system was not broken, nor was it damaged except in certain districts.  Instead, adoption of Common Core and PARCC was/is predicated upon a search for federal educational dollars.

If the test’s goal is to gauge one’s knowledge in certain areas that are age-appropriate, then there is no problem.  In fact, the best way to gauge course content knowledge is through the use of a multiple choice test.  The PARCC is multiple choice, but instead of gauging knowledge, its self-professed intention is an assessment of critical thinking skills.  Psychologically, these are higher-order skills, not something to be expected of 8th graders let alone 3rd grade.  The test presents equally reasonable answers and then asks one to justify their choice in a follow-up question.  When I took the test, I scored a 62 on language arts…5th grade.  The reason was my answer to the follow up question.  This is like asking an eight year old to explain why 3 and 3 is 6 even though they know 3+3=6.

Second, this is an online, computerized test.  There are the obvious costs associated with computer upgrades required- money that could better be spent elsewhere…like a classroom.  In addition, the test has an added dimension- keyboard skills which explains why kids as young as 5 are now required to spend a certain amount of time on a computer so they get used to a keyboard.  Teachers had to undergo training to help students should the need arise.  Even still, students had problems.  So they may know the correct answer, but its all for naught if they fail to click-and-drag, or cut-and paste.

And for what?  The test is being administered in March with results expected in November.  By then, the student is likely passed to the next grade before a test result shows they haven’t “mastered” the standards in the previous grade.  Thus, it has no statistical or diagnostic value.  In fact, students, teachers, parents and administrators will not even see what a student got wrong and why.

Further, in the lead up to the actual test, an inordinate amount of classroom time is dedicated to test preparation and test-taking strategies through another battery of benchmark testing.  There is very little actual classroom learning.  It therefore follows that an over-reliance on this test distorts the curriculum.  Too many times I have heard teachers saying, “Pay attention.  This is important because its on the test.”

This seriously undermines a student’s desire to actually learn for the sake of learning.  With Common Core, reading is reduced to a series of technical manuals with a heavy emphasis on non-fiction.  And if a student’s desire is undermined, a teacher’s desire to teach  is likewise undermined.  Ultimately, if one “teaches” because “its on the test,” then education itself is undermined.

Just this year alone, the United States is spending $1.7 billion on these tests.  About $1 billion of that is going to Pearson- the developer of the test. Not coincidentally, they are also a large maker of school text books designed around Common Core.  In effect, the PARCC test is a completely experimental endeavor that will inevitably show “failure-” an effective series of false negatives.  And people like Education Secretary Arne Duncan is aware which explains his derogatory comment about parental opposition to Common Core- “soccer moms” will find out that their kid is not as smart as they thought.  It is not that the student/child is not as smart as the parent thought; its that the test is, well… inherently stupid.  Thus, when the results do come in, do not be surprised if wide gaps will be further widened.  We will be besieged by proclamations that the state of K-12 education is worse than we originally thought and that more money is the solution.

Most importantly, there is ample evidence that testing per se does not enhance an educational outcome.  Academic “achievement” is based first on the standard established and then a complex dynamic within the classroom.  Common Core denies the individuality of students and their associated individual needs in favor of a one-size-fits-all mentality.  That is the worst thing about Common Core: it seriously disturbs that dynamic in the name of standardization which usually translates to “teaching to the test” and an overall dumbing down of the curriculum.

That problem is made even worse when and if a teacher’s performance is based on a student’s standardized test result.  It is no wonder then that many teachers use the “teach to the test” method rather than presenting a well-integrated, broad curriculum.  It also denies teachers the opportunity to use tried-and-true methods of teaching or even innovative methods especially in the earlier grades where children lack the brain to think critically or analytically.  Everything is standardized and sterile.  While student performance and proficiency should figure into a teacher’s appraisal, basing it in whole or part on a fundamentally flawed test based on a fundamentally flawed “common core” curriculum makes the whole effort no less fundamentally flawed (unless you use Common Core reasoning).  It is also an insult to many a good teacher everywhere.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Left railed against the military/industrial complex.  In the 1990s forward, it was globalization, big banks and corporations culminating in the Occupy Wall Street faux movement.  Perhaps if they were not so busy trashing public parks and defecating on police cars, they could have directed their anger on the true threat- the Educational/Industrial Complex best exemplified by companies like Pearson.  After all, isn’t that what its all about?  To paraphrase an old ’49er phrase, “There’s money in them ‘thar tests and textbooks.”