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Contined concern about PARCC testing

Rebecca Steinitz, a literacy consultant in urban high schools and an Arlington High School parent, presented the following statement about PARCC and MCAS testing to the School Committee on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015. She made similar comments in November, and they follow the statement below.

No Parccing signI don’t like to repeat myself, and you know my position: I think PARCC is a problematic test, for many reasons; I believe DESE is pushing districts to switch to PARCC in a blatant attempt to make the PARCCification of MCAS 2.0 inevitable; and, while I am as certain as many of you that the Department’s intention is to create a PARCC in MCAS clothing, I’m not convinced they will succeed. Thus I am opposed to shifting to PARCC in 2016.

That said, I want to talk about what I’m hearing from you all, which is two main rationales for switching to PARCC: the hold harmless provision, and technology. And my question is: what do these rationales have to do with students and learning?

Accountability matters. I work at a school that has gone from the 9th to the 24th percentile over the last four years, and I cried when we went from Level 3 to Level 1. But Arlington is a different story. Our district goals for 2015-16 say nothing about PPI or SGP. Yes, we are a Level 2 district, but so are Newton, Brookline, and Lexington – as achievement in the Commonwealth rises, these designations have less and less to do with educational quality, and more to do with impossible metrics. Arlington’s accountability problems are administrative and subgroup issues – which matter and continue to be admirably addressed, but do not threaten the district in any meaningful way.

Looking ahead, if Arlington students take PARCC, they will perform, relatively speaking, exactly as they perform on MCAS. That is, scores will decline with PARCC, but the PARCC standings will look just like the MCAS standings: teach-to-the-test charters at the top, then wealthy communities, on down to the poorest districts, and Arlington will stay more or less where it is, because, as we know, income is the number one correlation with standardized test results. As for individual student performance, released PARCC items can be used to gather data, and let’s not forget that 2017 will also be held harmless – for whatever form of test MCAS 2.0 actually takes. In short, I’m not seeing the need to be held harmless in 2016, and I’m not seeing how being held harmless matters for authentic student learning.

As for technology, I’m not worried about how students will handle computerized tests. They are the new generation; they are nonplussed by computers; we’re the ones who worry. Concerns about bandwidth and devices are more compelling, but still, these are issues for adults. Are we really going to give children a test they don’t need to take to see if our technology works? As an educator, my mind boggles.

In short, I’ve heard little in official discussions or private conversations to convince me that taking PARCC will benefit Arlington’s students, and I hope you will take this factor into consideration as you make your decision.

This viewpoint was published Monday, Dec. 14, 2015.

Steinitz spoke about standardized tests during public participation at the Thursday, Nov. 19, School Committee meeting. Her comments are published with her permission. She addressed the committee about testing in June 2014

I’m here to talk about tonight’s PARCC or MCAS agenda item.

I am glad you will not vote tonight on whether to give PARCC this spring. But I am disturbed that the only indication that you were considering this question was an agenda posted online late Tuesday afternoon. I hope you give the community a formal, well-publicized opportunity to weigh in on this matter. Arlington cares deeply about our schools, and we do not respond well when important decisions are kept from us.

I also want to speak to the implications of this week’s Board of Ed vote in favor of an MCAS 2.0 that will include PARCC items. There is no question that DESE envisions MCAS 2.0 as PARCC untimed. Knowing he was losing the public opinion battle, Commissioner Chester brokered a deal for states to use PARCC items on their own tests, announced the very morning he made his MCAS 2.0 proposal, and I’m sure he is confident he has pulled a fast one on Massachusetts. DESE’s certainty that the new assessment will essentially be PARCC is visible in the comment of a staff member on a conference call Tuesday: "If you have the opportunity to give PARCC in 2016, you are giving your students and staff a leg up on the next generation assessment."

But I question that claim, which is predicated on DESE’s assumption that they will get the PARCC-identical assessment they seek. 18 months ago, many of you said that PARCC was a done deal, which was exactly what DESE wanted you to think. But clearly that deal wasn’t done. And this one isn’t either. The final PARCC/MCAS hearing on Monday night showed significant determined opposition to PARCC. On Tuesday’s conference call, Chester was unable to answer questions about the percentage of PARCC questions in the new assessment or the platform it would use. When Kathy asked about the time frame for receiving PARCC data next year (this year the data was shockingly late) the response was “roughly the same time frame as MCAS, roughly,” which was hardly convincing.

So I truly do not see why a district, especially a high-achieving district like Arlington, would shift to PARCC. Every district will be held harmless for the new assessment in 2017, so we don’t need to administer unnecessary practice tests to protect district accountability rankings. We don’t know what the new test will look like, so we might not even be practicing the right thing, and we could be setting our students up to endure three different testing models in three years, for no student-centered reason that I can discern. Teachers can still analyze the PARCC items that are finally online and prepare their students for the skills the new assessment should address. But why change tests in the middle of an uncertain process?

I hope – no, I believe that Arlington still cares more about educating children than preparing them for tests. If this is the case, we should be teaching our children, not giving them unnecessary tests.

This viewpoint was published Friday, Nov. 20, 2015.

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