Monday, April 18, 2016

The Problem with Common Core Math Standards

Here is a comment I wrote last year about my own experiences and thoughts on the Common Core math standards written on Diane Ravitch's blog: and some discussion that followed. Been thinking about the impact of the CCSS on my classroom a lot after administering the CCSS-aligned PARCC exam for the past two weeks....
To me, as a special educator trying to make sense of Common Core Math Standards for third and fourth graders, the problem arises in both the specifics- specific standards that are simply developmentally inappropriate for many (not all) kids-and the sheer amount of standards. Here in Illinois, our old standards were about 7 pages for PK-12 and not even dense text. The old standards covered multiple grades (early elementary, intermediate elementary, middle grades etc….) not individual grade levels. They were outlines, general guidelines to show what topics to cover. Different curricula and individual teachers had a lot of leeway in deciding how to tackle those topics.
The Common Core standards, on the other hand, are 52 pages long for math alone! They are highly prescriptive and require very specific teaching techniques. For example, for third graders (these are 8 years olds!) one standard says,
“CC.3.OA.8 Solve problems involving the four operations, and identify and explain patterns in arithmetic. Solve two-step word problems using the four operations. Represent these problems using equations with a letter standing for the unknown quantity. Assess the reasonableness of answers using mental computation and estimation strategies including rounding. (This standard is limited to problems posed with whole numbers and having whole-number answers; students should know how to perform operations in the conventional order when there are no parentheses to specify a particular order (Order of Operations).)” 
These are some really hard concepts for kids many of whom developmentally are still thinking concretely. Say nothing about our students with special needs. And we’re asking them to do straight-up algebra. There are also multiple concepts in this one standard: mastery of all four operations, two-step word problems, creating algebraic expressions, rounding answers, and using mental math strategies. Seriously, this is ridiculous! By forcing this kind of complicated and abstract thought on kids who aren’t ready will make kids turn off to learning. And just wait ‘til you see the tests like PARCC that accompany these standards. They looked like college course exams instead of tests for elementary students.
Let’s talk about the amount of standards. For third grade alone, there are 35 of these complicated standards. There are less than 37 weeks of school in the Chicago Public Schools calendar, and in schools like mine, up to 15 weeks of that time is interrupted due to testing. The pacing is way too fast for many kids. The amount of standards required per grade level leads to a whirlwind of concepts being thrown at kids who are often aren’t ready for them even if they were given sufficient time.
And my kids with special needs are especially damaged by these standards. Their education is being warped in order to comply with these federal mandates. Teachers everywhere feel the tension around teaching concepts we know kids aren’t ready for, and what we’re being forced to do every day just to keep our jobs. The Chicago Public Schools IEP system won’t even let us put in standards from lower grade levels for our students to work on-they say it has to be the chronological grade level of the child regardless of where they are currently functioning.
I’m tired of people saying, what’s wrong with the “mathematical practices”? Nothing, if that’s all the standards were. It’s the other 52 pages that is harming students, especially in the younger grades and kids with special learning needs. There were no elementary teachers or special educators included in developing these standards, which is very evident in practice.
Common Core sets kids up to fail. That’s not the kind of teaching I believe in.
 Here is a comment written in response:
  • Katie,
    I appreciate the frustration you are expressing. The CC standards are a long document. When you actually look at the number of pages for each grade level, it is actually much more manageable although certainly not as meager as 7 pages for all the grades–which sounds to me more like a list of topics rather than standards.
    My experience is this:
    — CC is new and teachers/parents are having a hard time changing to what is new
    –the math is particularly daunting to educators who have relied on their own algorithms rather than a clear conceptual understanding of what those algorithms do
    –making the switch requires really good and ONGOING professional development to help teachers along with the unfamiliar parts of the standards
    –many materials claiming to be Common Core are confusing the issue and making it harder for teachers by providing pages of materials that actually confuse rather than help with conceptual understanding
    –many textbooks over-teach what is actually required and if teachers follow those texts page by page, they will be overwhelmed and frustrated
    –Common Core is sometimes being confused with testing as accountability and although many proponents of one are proponents of the other, they are not the same thing
    I hope you will give Common Core math more time for you to digest it. Try things out without being too hard on yourself. Some of your special ed kiddos will take to concepts and LOVE them. Others will certainly respond better to learning the steps of an algorithm. Special Education is always the hardest area of implementation and I respect what you do immensely.
  • @educhange Thank you for your thoughtful comment, but I disagree. I don’t need more professional development in order to teach developmentally inappropriate standards. And no one ever mentions the pacing required to cover everything-it leaves our kids with disabilities far behind. In fact, since the general education curriculum has changed so significantly, myself and many colleagues are having to rethink Least Restrictive placements for some students with disabilities. I teach special education at a Title 1 neighborhood school on the south side of Chicago, so my students are often some of the most vulnerable kids in our system. And Common Core is harming them. We are seeing behavioral and academic consequences to implementing an experimental, inappropriate set of standards.
    But to take a step back, we know Common Core was not primarily written or pushed by educators, but by the testing industry and proponents of neoliberal education reform. Seem from that point of view, where schools like mine need to “fail” in order to promote privatization and to extract profit from our public K-12 system, the Common Core’s difficulties are not a fluke, but done by design.

PARCC is the Worst Test I've Ever Seen

Here are some more thoughts on the PARCC test:

I administered the test to third and fourth graders with disabilities (8 & 9 years olds.)

The PARCC reading passages are ridiculously long. After I argued my way into being able to provide the accommodation of oral reading for certain students with disabilities, I immediately regretted that decision as just reading the passages and questions was a ridiculously arduous task. Even I, as an adult, felt fatigued from reading out loud the over three page essays, and there were up to three of these passages per testing session. And the texts were all at least one, possibly more, grade levels above the year I was testing. Every. Single. One. Some of the adult-level vocabulary even made me stumble a few times. And there were a number of foreign words in some texts. And I'm not talking Spanish. Why? Why? Also, even though the passages were many pages long, there were no pictures to help children place text (other standardized tests for younger kids often provide some picture support.)

Many of the passages also used excerpts from real popular young people's literature, giving a huge advantage to any student who happened to read that novel. Since they were excerpts, though, this also meant that students were reading completely acontextual passages that SHOULD be in a context. They were parts of a novel, after all. One passage I read was from a favorite book, but used for this purpose completely destroyed that story. Plus, the story was set in a different country and time period yet the kids were given NO BACKGROUND on any of it. 

All the passages I read were also incredibly biased-both in terms of being truly racist tests but also in terms of bias towards affluence. They covered topics that were so obscure, or so obviously tied to wealth and the ability to travel, that I wanted to pull my hair out. Horrible choices. Certainly nothing that my African-American students in the inner city my could relate to, and as it was a testing setting, there was no way to give even a few simple background facts to help the kids place the stories. Some passages were even borderline American propaganda-driveling over American symbols or White Western history, that my school's relatively Afrocentric curriculum definitely did not cover. 

Then the questions asked of the students were horribly, like worse than I've ever seen, ambiguous. The possible answers were very closely related and you could easily make an argument for more than one correct response. In fact, in some questions, they asked for more than one response, which was a confusing format. Also, for each and every response, there were two parts, the first a general answer and the second a quote from the text that "proved your response." Talk about confusing! 

And then there was the essay. This was were I want to stop tearing my own hair and start tearing the damn test. Multiple parts, demanding dialogue evidence and use of literary language. And more complicated than essays I've written at the college level. I do not exaggerate. For eight and nine years olds with disabilities who can barely write a sentence. I got the accommodation to scribe for my students, but even that was a joke. I read the questions, and the kids just spouted off random answers that proved they had no idea whatsoever about what the passages were about. But why would they? We would NEVER read three pages of text unsupported without context in my classroom!

Some teachers also reported that the passages on the test were the same as last year, perhaps adding to the super strict testing policies. Probably field testing. Using our kids as guinea pigs for Pearson's profit.

After giving these tests to students in the morning, my classroom would descend into chaos by the afternoon. The kids were exhausted, their usual schedule and routines completely disrupted. They were irritable, and at one point, one girl with a severe emotional disability began to cry for about an hour, as in wailing tears. The staff kept saying, "Shh...classrooms are still testing!" as if that were the problem. Another girl had a temper tantrum mid-test, I had to remind the folks helping to administer the exam to just stop the test! No reason for pushing kids to meltdowns. My student with Autism stopped coming to school altogether. This child already had attendance issues, but after one day of testing, he never showed up again for nearly a week and a half. (Definitely a smart choice, on the kid's part. They'll still try to make him do make-ups, though.) Other students were snapping at one another like I've never seen and even the staff had short tempers, including myself.

I was so upset after administering this test that I ended up calling in sick as my mental health was honestly being affected. I'm not sure I'll be able to build up trust again with my students. SEVEN frickin' days of this nonsense. Kids were so spent, I allowed semi-structured independent work sessions each afternoon after testing. No formal teaching/learning happened in my classroom for two weeks. And this test doesn't even count! The test that actually counts starts just after Spring Break. YET MORE TESTING for my fragile learners!!

PARCC is truly the worst test I've ever seen for young kids. And I am no fan of ANY standardized test. But I feel dirty after administering this stinking bag of rot.

Friday, March 25, 2016

PARCC and Real Live Children

There's a lot going on in Chicago right now. I was proud to become delegate at my school this past week and participate in the CTU House of Delegates vote to authorize a one-day strike this April 1st. This action is inspiring and energizing for me and I am excited to take part.

But quietly, behind all the news, contract negotiations, and decisions about strategy on how to fight back, our school has been prepping for the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) exam which begins next week. 

I am against all standardized testing, but want to take a minute to highlight why the PARCC exam is especially harmful.

I teach in a special education classroom at a neighborhood public school in Chicago's Roseland neighborhood. Our K-8 program is 99% African-American, almost all from low-income backgrounds with many families in deep poverty. My class covers kids in third and fourth grade who have disabilities significant enough to warrant them being removed from their general education setting at least part of the day. The PARCC test begins in grade 3, so my students are the youngest kids exposed to this test and in many ways, the most vulnerable.

And the PARCC test is straight-up cruel.

1. The test itself is ridiculously long and inappropriate for any 8 and 9 year old, but particularly for my students with special needs. This round of testing (unclear if there will be two rounds, one in March and one in May, like last year) lasts for 3 ELA (Reading) sections and 4 Math sections all on separate days lasting about 1.5 to 2 hours each including the extended time accommodation on students' IEPs. Essentially, my students will miss their Literacy Block nearly every day for two weeks. And that does not take into account make-up tests, technical glitches, staff absences, and all the other unforeseeable circumstances that invariably arise. In addition, our ancillary staff (inclusion teachers, paraprofessionals, specials teachers, clinicians) get pulled from their regular duties for WEEKS ON END to test all our students. Also, our STEM/computer lab and library will be in use for weeks and weeks meaning it is not available for students.

But take a look at what the test is asking 8 and 9 year-olds to do. Put yourself in their shoes. (I am using the "Sample items" from the PARCC website.)

The main task is for students to read TWO long passages, answer questions, then WRITE AN ESSAY comparing and contrasting the two selections (highlighting mine).
 Now let's take a look at the two passages:


These passages are each over a page and a half. A page and a half! When I typed some of one of the passages into Word to do a readability test, the passage came out as OVER a sixth grade reading level!!! (This all has to do with the Common Core's new "more rigorous" reading levels, which have no basis in research, and are completely arbitrary measures.)

 Now, I don't personally remember ever having to read long passages like this in high school or even in college in a timed exam setting. Like never. Even the SATs used shorter passages. And don't forget these passages are TOTALLY RANDOM, not something connected to a curriculum where students could have had time to build background knowledge and discuss the concepts. They are cold reading massive chunks of text under time pressure, answering complicated questions, and writing essays that ask really difficult questions like this:

Eight and nine year olds. Eight and nine year olds! Can someone please tell me why an eight year old needs to be engaging in literary analysis?? Anyone?

And talk about culturally biased. How many inner-city children, or any children really, have exposure to words like "cougar" and can understand Japanese cultural allusions. Ironically, my particular school did once have a Japanese program and my kids might have has background knowledge on "kira-kira", only the program was cut two years ago thanks in part to pressures of standardized tests like this one.

2. PARCC, like other standardized tests, does not honor IEP testing accommodations. For most of my students, I intentionally include "Reading the whole test aloud" and "Scribing answers" during testing. But we are being told that the PARCC test does not allow these types of accommodations. Why does the testing company get to trump the legally-mandated IEP team's recommendations?  Also, what do the test designers think they are learning from this test other than the fact that my students cannot do the acts of reading and writing? You don't need three separate testing sessions for that. Normally for assessment purposes, unless I am specifically assessing reading levels, I am more interested in determining the students' ability to comprehend and respond to text-thus the accommodations. Many of my students, as a direct result of their disabilities, are reading texts like this: 

What the hell are my kids supposed to do with over three pages of dense text at the sixth grade reading level?!?

Now many of the kids actually CAN respond to more complicated text and questions WITH ACCOMMODATIONS. I tried to challenge our school testing coordinator on this, but she maintained we could not implement these basic accommodations. I'm not sure this is true-brings up lots of questions about implementation problems-but even if I could get the accommodations in place, it wouldn't change the actual inappropriate content of the darn tests.

3. High-stakes tests like PARCC actually trigger mental health crises for too many children. During my time teaching at a psych hospital, I saw far far too many kids being brought in to our inpatient psychiatric facility as a direct result of standardized testing. As in, the student had a mental health crisis in the middle of testing-including harming themselves or others-and had to be brought to a hospital via ambulance. 

Just think on that.

Someone with the means needs to do a study looking at spikes in mental health problems and psychiatric hospitalizations due to testing. I have no doubt based on the anecdotal evidence I've seen that this problem is much more serious than anyone is reporting. Some intake counselors have told me that kids are reporting testing and specifically PARCC in their intake interviews prior to hospitalization. This abuse needs to be brought to light.

In my classroom alone, I can identify 2-3 students who will likely be harmed-HARMED-due to this testing, especially given the PARCC test's ridiculous expectations. I have students with Autism who emotionally break down to tantrums when given large tasks, students with severe social-emotional issues who are triggered by even a slightly challenging short math problem much less three pages of text. I have kids who are suffering from PTSD, homelessness, lead poisoning, domestic violence, parental incarceration, and poverty. How can I, in good concision, give my students this test? It will break the trust I have tried to build with them. I'm afraid for real mental health breakdowns next week.

4. These tests are damn expensive and DO NOT EVEN COUNT for anything other than to check the box that we are jumping through the Federal government's accountability requirement-something that should have been written out of the ESSA law. 

CPS uses the NWEA for actual accountability purposes (also a terrible test, but for different reasons). So all the time and money used for PARCC doesn't even count in evaluation or school ratings (not that ANY testing should count, but gotta fight that nonsense in the state legislature.) So we still have to do WEEKS of testing for THAT darn test starting in May. And PARCC and NWEA are completely different kinds of tests which means we've had to double prep for two different inane tests that harm kids and rob schools of joy and autonomy.

And how can CPS "we're so broke" even justify the costs of these tests? I'm sitting here today writing this because CPS forced a furlough day on us all. Plus, they have cut our school's budget I think four times this year? We lost teachers and staff over the summer due to budget cuts, then again at the 10th day causing layoffs and mass shuffling of classrooms over a month into the school year, then more money last January, and again last week. Yet there's money for the ridiculous test? Pearson is getting paid, but teachers have to buy their own copy paper and soap? Please....

5. The test is designed to fail. Looking at what the actual test asks of kids, it should come as no surprise that last year's results were dismal. Of course they were. Imagine giving a student in the beginning weeks of a first semester Chinese class a test designed for the fourth year course. The test won't tell me anything about that student, that teacher, or that Chinese program. It just tells me that I gave a bad test.

Frankly, there are even more reasons to hate the PARCC. Go check out the More Than A Score website to see more and get info on how to Opt Out.

So let's review....

The PARCC test is mind-mindbogglingly inappropriate and long. It gives NO USEFUL information for teachers or schools. It ignores IEPs. It is damaging to kids.
It triggers our most vulnerable learners destroying trust and joy in the classroom. It robs classrooms of SO MUCH STINKIN' TIME. 

Oh, and by the way, PARCC originally was in 24 states, but has now dropped to only 6. 

There is NO REASON for Illinois to continue using this test. None.
Additional Thoughts:

Now here's the truth. I have not engaged in much work at my school around resisting this test. The parents I work with, frankly, are overwhelmed with the everyday problems of living in poverty, working multiple jobs, housing insecurity, navigating impossible systems, AND they are trying to survive all this with a child, often more than one, who has significant disabilities. I know they care about the cruelties of testing and what's happening to their children's schools, but asking them to fight one more system is a hard ask. 

The teachers at my school are also completely overwhelmed with this system. From our horrible evaluation systems, to crippling workloads, to never-ending mandates, we are all exhausted.

This is why I am incredibly thankful for the parents, teachers, and students who ARE engaging in testing resistance for all of us. 

Some people complain that testing resistance and Opt Out efforts are too white and middle-class. That's definitely an inaccurate depiction of what's happening in Chicago. But I also don't care because frankly these issues impact schools like mine even more negatively than more stable middle-class schools. Only we don't have the ability to fight the same way for the very same reasons those in charge are pushing testing and accountability hardest on our school.

Please, keep fighting this! It's harmful and it has disparate impact on low-income students of color as well as students with disabilities and students still learning English.

I don't know what I am going to do next week. I suppose I could become a consciousness objector, but my kids would still be forced to take this test.

This I do know: When we all strike on April 1st, I will be glad for the break from the madness that is the PARCC exam. I will be glad that my kids will get an extra day away from school during this sickening testing season. I know I am clinging to the hope that maybe someday we can get rid of all this horrible testing infesting our schools.
I know I will be proud to participate in the fight for the kinds of schools and city my kids actually deserve.

PARCC needs to disappear. And I hope this post helps people understand why.