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'This is Against American Ideals': Rhode Island Teachers Respond to PARCC
This teacher's story reflects the frustrations of many Rhode Island teachers regarding the PARCC test, according to a survey given in April of this year. The purpose of the survey was to discover how teachers perceived the test and its effects on student learning and well-being, their teaching, and school climate. We share the results in this paper.
According to the current dominant narrative on public education, an "achievement gap" separates those who are academically successful from those who are not. An examination of standardized test data used to fuel this narrative reveals specific patterns: A student's race and socioeconomic status (SES) strongly predicts his or her academic achievement. Yet, educational reform efforts have focused on what happens inside of school, ignoring the impact of the economic and social inequities that occur outside of school, what Nygreen calls the "consequence gap" (2013, p. 171). This consequence gap negatively affects students from low-income households and students of color (Hicks, 2002; Campano, 2007).
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 was designed to address the socioeconomic disparities by making public education accessible to all. Accountability measures were put into place to support federal efforts toward civil rights and poverty alleviation. However, as far back as 1974, it was clear that tracking student achievement data, including standardized test results, had negligible effects on improving education, especially for underserved students (Hall, 2015).
Standardized tests, in theory, provide objective criteria to accurately measure student learning. However, even statisticians point out this is a faulty assumption: "Historical research has shown that what is studied, and what findings are produced, are influenced by the beliefs of the [researchers] and the political/social climate at the time the research is done" (Muijs, 2010). The result of the "audit culture's" reduction of data to quantitative measures such as test scores, has, as Hall writes, made a social and political problem into a technical one (2015, p. 10).
In addition to ignoring socioeconomic effects on learning and the inadequacy of test scores as a means of accurate, comprehensive assessment, current educational policies in Rhode Island disregard teacher perspectives. Given that teachers are the ones who prepare students for and administer the test, this is a problem. We seek to mitigate that situation by disseminating results from a survey given to Rhode Island public school teachers.
This survey documents teachers' experiences with the PARCC in Rhode Island. The survey was shared from April 6 to April 20, 2015 via email, Twitter, and Facebook using a link to a Google Form. 298 teachers responded to the survey. 107 (36%) respondents were elementary school teachers, 95 (32%) were middle school teachers, and 96 (32%) were high school teachers. 117 (39.5%) teachers taught in urban districts, 68 (23%) in urban ring districts, 79 (26.5%) in suburban districts, and 32 (11%) in rural districts.
In addition to the 10 Likert Scale questions, there was a final open-ended question: "I would like policymakers, school leaders, and parents to know the following about my experience administering the PARCC test." 162 teachers wrote responses, and the quotes in the Findings section all come from answers to that last question. We analyzed the qualitative data by looking for themes and patterns, creating separate codes, and then combining our codes to show the separate themes, discussed below.
We focus on four major themes in the data: student perceptions and responses to the PARCC test, the effect of the PARCC test on teaching, the impact of educational policies that marginalize teachers, and opportunities for change.
STUDENT PERCEPTIONS AND RESPONSES
Students had an overwhelmingly negative response to the test. Teachers reported that the questions were not grade-level appropriate, nor were they suited for students with diverse learning styles and abilities.
80% of teachers believed that the PARCC test was a negative experience for their students.
Much of this negative experience might be linked to the developmental inappropriateness of the computer-based platform as well as the questions themselves. One elementary level teacher wrote, "Students in grade 3 are not prepared enough to do the required amount of typing. Children did not have the stamina [to] write a [story] and be busy looking on a keyboard for the next letter in a word!" Although there was a paper and pencil option, according to the PARCC manual's Appendix A (2014a), this option was limited to students with IEPs or 504 plans, students who had little or no experience with technology, schools with a documented lack of technology readiness, and students with religious beliefs that limited their online access (p. 1). Thus, the large majority of students were required to take the computer-based option regardless of readiness.
Furthermore, teachers noted that students encountered texts and problems that seemed challenging for the students' grade level. One middle school teacher discussed the "wildly inappropriate" use of excerpts from James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist, pointing out that those texts are typically reserved for high school students. Although it is unclear whether these were scored questions or sample questions for future tests, the students do not know the difference, which could cause negative feelings about their ability, decrease their motivation, and invalidate their results.
This difference in teacher reporting aligns with another survey question in which 91% of urban teachers disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that "My students feel they did well on the PARCC test." One teacher explained, "Standardized testing is biased and unfair, and does not give a representative sample of student ability. Additionally, it reinforces the differences between affluent and urban students without recognizing or taking into account many of the factors that determine success or failure on the tests themselves." Other research supports this teacher's statement, showing that urban students have diverse literacy practices not valued in schools or academic testing situations (Hicks, 2002; Papa, 2015).
When asked more specifically about their students' understanding of the test, the teachers provide responses that are even more disheartening. Of the 263 respondents who work with students with IEPs, 90% disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that those students understood most of the questions on the test. The students' lack of understanding was made real by students' tears. As one teacher said, "Watching students with learning disabilities cry ... negates any positive data outcomes. We must now spend weeks helping students feel in control of their learning again." Another added, "These students have solidly made a year's gain in their reading ability and are working to close the gap. [This test] did not close the gap but rather decreased their self-confidence and reminded them how far behind they are. The time wasted on this test could have been better spent working to boost their skills!" From these stories, the desire for students to learn and teachers to teach is obvious. The emphasis on standardized testing, especially as seen in the amount of time spent--585 minutes (9.75 hours) in Grade 3 and up to 675 minutes (11.25 hours) in Grades 9-11 (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, 2014b)--gets in the way of these goals.
The story is similar with ELLs (English Language Learners). Again, of the 167 teachers that work with ELLs, 95% of them disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that their ELLs understood most of the questions on the test. One teacher recognized this as "unethical" and "discrimination," pointing to a specific example of the math test being available only in English and Spanish -- when, according to RI Kids Count (2014), there are 84 additional languages being spoken in Rhode Island public schools (p. 138). This raises validity concerns. If students do not understand the test, how can accurate inferences be drawn from the results?
In the case of all students--especially those with special needs or those facing language barriers--this negative academic experience cannot be separated from the studentsĂ˘€™ self-perceptions. Research shows that students with greater self-efficacy set higher goals for their own achievement and are also more successful in reaching those goals. However, simply setting higher expectations on a new or revised standardized test will not increase achievement. Academic experiences must be designed to increase studentsĂ˘€™ sense of self-efficacy as well (Zimmerman, Bandura, & Martinez-Pons, 1992, p. 673).
IMPACT ON TEACHING
The PARCC test also had a negative impact on teaching. Survey data revealed that teachers spent excessive time preparing students for the technical and content aspects of the test, leading to significant alterations to the curriculum. Teachers expressed that they do not feel this time spent was worthwhile or that the data will help support their teaching.
On average, about 36% of the teachers reported spending over 15 hours preparing students for the content of the test.
As one teacher explained, "disruption to teaching is huge because schedules were changed on a daily basis even when not testing [and it's] hard for kids to adapt to these changes." The PARCC Consortium has acknowledged that the number of tests required and the time allotted for them was too much. In May, they announced reductions in the 2015-2016 school year administration, explaining that they will "consolidate the two testing windows into one and to reduce total test time by about 90 minutes" (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, 2015a). This means that Grade 3 students would have 495 minutes (8.25 hours) allotted rather than 585 minutes while Grades 9-11 students would have 585 minutes (9.75 hours) allotted instead of 675 minutes.
However, these changes do not go far enough or make up for the lost time from preparation and administration in the 2014-2015 school year. On average, 69% of teachers surveyed agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that they had to significantly alter the curriculum as a result of PARCC testing.
While it is unclear what was being altered and whether it was due to technical or content preparations or the actual administration of the test, these were not positive changes. In some cases, teachers reported that "whole curriculum projects were put on hold and maybe cancelled because tech was reserved for PARCC." Essentially, teachers had two options: speed through content too quickly or skip certain content altogether. Either way, both situations were detrimental to learning. By speeding too quickly, teachers risk conflating "coverage" with "understanding" (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005, p. 229). Or, in the case of skipping content, one teacher remarked, "time with my ELLs is precious .... [I] want to spend time teaching them valuable skills and lessons they need; not how to navigate through a computer-based tests." If students are not being exposed to the academic content they need, how can they be expected to perform?
Another important question posed by a teacher was about the test's alignment with STEM-based curricular approaches that are currently being encouraged by local businesses and Rhode Island civic leaders. This teacher said, "Lit[erature] explains that math anxiety is a real thing, [the PARCC] test exacerbates it as we are encouraging students in STEM." It seems that standardized tests threaten the development of what Governor Raimondo says are "the skills [students] need to succeed in the 21st century economy" (Rhode Island Small Business Journal, 2015).
Furthermore, teachers are not confident that their already limited instructional time was used wisely or that the results will be meaningful. On average, 90% of teachers disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that the time spent was worthwhile. Likewise, 87% of teachers disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that the data will help support instruction.
PARCC claims that "score reports are designed to identify where a student needs help or is excelling by providing more and better information to teachers and parents so they can enhance instruction to meet individual student needs" (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, 2015b). However, teachers elaborated their concerns about the delayed release of results, emphasizing that the "data [is] not available until fall," meaning that it "doesnĂ˘€™t help me teach my current students." If so much time is going to be put towards an initiative, teachers want to ensure that it will be useful for their planning and their studentsĂ˘€™ growth.
Teachers characterized the PARCC as age and culturally inappropriate, time-consuming, and a classroom assessment tool of negligible use. They suggested that the time and effort devoted to PARCC could be better spent on effective instruction and assessment for students as well as appropriate professional development for teachers.
IMPACT ON TEACHER AUTONOMY AND AGENCY
As the data above show, PARCC testing has negatively impacted how teachers teach. Pressure to teach to the test has transferred power over curriculum and instruction from individual professionals trained in their craft to state and federal government agencies and corporations--such as Pearson, creator of the PARCC test (Brass, 2015). In this section, we document the impact of the PARCC on teacher autonomy and in turn, how that affected school climate.
One of the early controversies was about whether students would be allowed to opt out of taking the test. Despite the fact that Rhode Island has no formal policy for opting out, the data show that 59% of teachers felt pressure to tell students they had to take the test. One teacher wrote, "Teachers [were] strongly cautioned not to respond to parents about opting out. [They were] told they would face consequences if they did." As a result, some felt they were behaving in an unethical manner. "When teachers are pressured to lie to parents and students they loose [sic] the integrity [and] respect of the parents, students and taxpayers," wrote another. This fear was justified as was reported in the case of Bill Ashton, who, after telling students about the option, was suspended (Borg, 2015a). He was reinstated after students protested, but it supports data from the survey (Borg, 2015b).
Another ethical challenge arose because teachers were admonished not to answer even basic questions from students during or after testing. One teacher said she felt "dishonest" in telling her students to do their best on a test she had not seen before. As professionals, teachers know how to support students in ways that do not provide answers, but assist them in understanding the question. The preparation for and administration of PARCC went against what teachers have been trained to do and what educational research has demonstrated works best.
Distrust of RIDE and Pearson
In addition to feeling ethically compromised, the teachers also showed a distrust of RIDE and Pearson. One educator reported that RIDE officials told parents that the PARCC would need no extra practice or preparation, but they told teachers the opposite. Another wrote that RIDE did not acknowledge the problems with field testing and that those same issues arose during the actual testing.
Many teachers also documented their suspicions about Pearson, noting that the multibillion dollar corporation is benefitting financially from the tests. One teacher wrote, "The intent is clear by this consortium--to privatize education and profit off our students." Another forecasted that Pearson will roll out a curriculum that will allegedly prepare students for PARCC, lining Pearson's pockets with more money and more power over public education.
It is clear, then, that control over assessments has led to control of content. As a corporation, PearsonĂ˘€™s profit motive is at odds with the aims of public education as outlined by the original ESEA Act. Rhode Islanders should be concerned that the shift from public to corporate control ignores unique local contexts and educator expertise, leads to increased surveillance and external controls, and positions students and teachers as mere "data" (Taubman, 2009, p. 144).
Overall, the PARCC test created a negative climate in schools. Scheduling disruptions, student sadness and anger, and regulations that prevented teachers from supporting their students led to tensions in the schools. 249 out of 298 teachers, or 83.6%, said that their school climate worsened. Only three teachers said climate improved. Cohen, McCabe, Michelli, and Pickeral (2009) found considerable empirical evidence indicating "that positive school climate is associated with and/or predictive of academic achievement, school success, effective violence prevention, students' healthy development, and teacher retention" (p. 180). In addition, a healthy climate is essential for maintaining high quality teachers (Johnson, 2007).
Many teachers noted that the test was an important indicator of larger problems with the audit culture. One teacher asked, "Am I enabling the government to dictate how my classroom will run even though I know it is not best practice?" Another noted, "We have turned into factories producing the same product. This is against American ideals." A third wondered how state officials and district administrators could feel that PARCC is in the best interest of students. These teachers pointed out the conflict between excessive standardized testing and the realities of individual student learning and progress, which is often nonlinear and incremental.
Teachers are also aware of the consequence gap (Nygreen, 2013), or the role SES and race play in standardized test scores. One pointed out, "Students in financially challenged districts will perform poorly." As witnesses to the consequences of inequality on student engagement and learning, teachers want flexible policies that consider their studentsĂ˘€™ diverse learning styles and backgrounds.
In addition to their objections to PARCC, teachers offered hope and concrete solutions. One invites all of us to her class: "Come visit me, meet my great kids, see the absolute calm, peace, joy, rigor, and engagement that...is a natural part of my classroom." Another writes, "Let's be more creative and work harder to create a better system of assessment that is not solely based on multiple choice tests and that would be much more fair and valid for students of all economic backgrounds."
This teacher survey shows the limitations and fallacies of the audit culture's dominant narrative that standardized tests provide an accurate picture of student learning, as reflected across the country (Ravitch, 2015). The standardization of schooling through curricular reform and testing has shown no evidence of closing the so-called achievement gap, nor have these measures been found to improve student learning ( https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B4-TSHnE6uPLMXR0UEtPbHNWOG8/view ). Alternatives to standardized testing have been suggested by organizations such as FairTest (2014) and the Forum on Educational Accountability (FEA). FEA, which previously released a joint statement on NCLB in 2004, is now undersigned by 156 groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the National Education Association. Most recently, FEA (2014) recommended the following improvements to ESEA:
Ă˘—ŹReduce the amount of federally mandated statewide testing (e.g., once each in grades 3-5, 6-8, 9-11).
Ă˘—ŹSupport development of student assessment systems that include performance assessments and classroom-based evidence as part of public reporting and accountability.
Ă˘—ŹRequire states to use multiple sources of evidence of various types (Ă˘€śmultiple measuresĂ˘€ť) to evaluate students, educators, schools and districts.
Ă˘—ŹEnsure that new assessments reflect the needs of diverse learners and are designed to inform instruction. Use principles of universal design for learning.
Ă˘—ŹEliminate federally-mandated use of student standardized test scores in educator evaluations.
For us, though, the backlash against the PARCC exam is not just about the test itself, but reflects the larger issue of corporatization in public education, which discounts the valid experience and expertise of teachers, parents, and educational researchers. Therefore, we offer the following suggestions for state and local policymakers:
1.Offer authentic opportunities for teachers and educational researchers to help plan an assessment system based on the local and diverse student population;
2.Create political structures that ensure meaningful teacher participation and resist corporatization in educational policy; and
3.Work to alleviate oppressive political and economic structures that disproportionately harm students of color and from poverty, thus leveling the playing field.
The survey demonstrates that Rhode Island teachers are knowledgeable, compassionate professionals who object to standardized tests that disenfranchise students with special needs and from underserved communities, take substantial hours away from teaching and learning, and contribute to teacher marginalization at the hands of non-educators. While there are multiple perspectives on how to support and improve student learning, the ESEA requires that quality public education is offered to all. Unfortunately, the PARCC test, as currently administered, interferes with that mandate. Teachers know what quality education and assessment look like. They should be respected contributors to conversations on public education in Rhode Island.
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Janet D Johnson & Brittany A. Richer
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