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.