I was a teacher at the RI School for the Deaf for over 25 years. I taught courses that strengthened my students’ capacities for reading and writing in English, a language that for most of them was not their native language, due to their early and severe hearing loss. Many of them also lived in families that did not speak English, which further complicated their progress. I also administered assessments one-on-one to prepare for students’ IEPs (Individualized Education Plans). These were time-consuming to administer and to score, because they included receptive and expressive English, reading comprehension, and writing. But they provided essential diagnostic information that their teachers could use to develop curriculum materials. From time to time I also had to administer the state standardized test, which was the NECAP. For most of my students, this was a futile exercise. Despite their IEP that said they were reading at the 3rd grade level, for example, if they were in the ninth grade, they had to take the 9th grade test. All of my colleagues were aware that this test could not possibly show what the students were capable of, but it did not occur to any of us to refuse to administer it, even if the students expressed distress. Of course, that was before any high stakes were attached to the testing, for students, for teachers, or for schools.
I am also the parent of two young adults who went through the Cranston, RI Public Schools, graduated, and went on to college and earned degrees. I was not always happy with the textbooks or the uninspired curriculum offerings. In fact, I took my daughter out of public school for two years in high school so that she could get more individual attention and study topics that engaged her as a whole person. Still, it would not have occurred to me to stand up against the school.
I am explaining this because it’s important to understand that I had the luxury to go along with a system that wasn’t quite right but that wasn’t a calamity either. I have been researching what has been happening in education across America, and indeed even globally, since I retired in 2011. The Common Core so-called State Standards and PARCC testing are the tip of the iceberg that is rushing us all along toward the dismantling of public education as we have known it, and the de-professionalizing of teachers. Granted there have been many problems with our system, not the least of which is the lack of proper funding. But these problems can be tackled with knowledge of child development, with content area knowledge, with sensitivity to cultural and language differences, with open-mindedness, and with determination. Despite the rhetoric coming from the education so-called reformers about Children First, the need for rigor, internationally benchmarked standards, the civil rights issue of our time—the reality of their solution is dystopian.
My focus during my teaching career was essentially on English language mastery, reading comprehension, and writing, so I will focus here on English Language Arts and the travesty of what is being foisted on all public schools by the Common Core ELA standards and the PARCC testing.
What does it take to nurture a student’s ability to not only become a competent reader, but to seek to read for information, for knowledge, for introspection, and for enjoyment? It takes human teachers knowledgeable about cognitive development, first and second language development, and literacy development. It takes human teachers who respond to their students with sensitivity, perceptiveness, and acumen. It takes human teachers who provide engaging materials and encourage students to find their own voices. It takes human teachers who empathize with their students. Why am I using the phrase human teachers? Isn’t it obvious? Unfortunately, no, not to those who master-minded the Common Core and its newest iteration: Competency Based Education (more on that in another blog post).
If you have been researching the origins of the Common Core, you may already know that those who developed these standards were professionals who primarily came from the college entrance testing industry—the College Board and the ACT. The small cabal that actually wrote the standards did not include any experienced and credentialed authorities on cognitive development, first and second language development, or literacy development. There were virtually no k-12 classroom teachers involved in the drafting. Nor were there any experts on special needs students. Those who do have expertise in ELA have decried the inappropriateness of the standards, particularly for the youngest students and those with learning challenges, but also for typically developing students.
The fatal flaws inherent in the development of the standards lead to the tragic flaws found in the curricula aligned to them. The push to pressure young students to focus on skills such as compare/contrast and fact vs. opinion does not enhance their reading comprehension. The keys to comprehension are engagement and context. The curricular materials that many school districts have purchased, published by Pearson, the global education company that administers the PARCC, provide neither. These materials are counter-productive, since they convince students that reading is a chore; if students are not good at reading as measured by the worksheets and benchmark testing, then they conclude that they are not good readers, or even decide that they are stupid. This can have devastating consequences for their academic learning going forward, and for their ability to be life-long learners.
Teachers are being forced to teach to these inappropriate standards because students are burdened with taking the PARCC, which was inextricably linked to the Common Core standards from the beginning. This test is counter-productive and wasteful of resources and students’ learning time. When RI Department of Education spokespeople say that there is no test prep possible for the PARCC because it is testing critical thinking skills, they are wrong on several fronts. First of all, they do admit that students need to be familiarized with the format of the online tests—but this is a waste of time and computer resources. Second, the PARCC does not actually test critical thinking skills. Third, the Common Core aligned curricula that school districts are buying into (and spending big bucks on), such as Pearson materials, are actually pure test prep and do not provide the engaging, context-rich materials that students need to truly learn and develop mastery.
Recently there was a brouhaha on social media and in the blogosphere regarding exposure of some of the actual passages and writing prompts on the PARCC, as I mentioned in my previous post. An anonymous 4th grade teacher’s observations were posted on the blog of Celia Oyler, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. That the anonymous teacher included actual passages and prompts from the ELA test she had administered, which is counter to the pledge that PARCC requires all teachers to sign, caused the CEO of PARCC, Inc. to prevail on Twitter to remove links to the post. The teacher went ahead with exposing the material, knowing that there might eventually be legal consequences, but firmly believing that the public had the right to know what 9 year old students were being measured on. Fortunately, many education bloggers continued to repost the teacher’s observations. She found that:
“4th graders are being asked to read and respond to texts that are two grade levels above the recommended benchmark. After they struggle through difficult texts with advanced vocabulary and nuanced sentence structures, they then have to answer multiple choice questions that are, by design, intended to distract students with answers that appear to be correct except for some technicality.
“Finally, students must synthesize two or three of these advanced texts and compose an original essay. The ELA portion of the PARCC takes three days, and each day includes a new essay prompt based on multiple texts. …
“ELA 4th Grade Prompt #1
Refer to the passage from “Emergency on the Mountain” and the poem “Mountains.” Then answer question 7.
- Think about how the structural elements in the passage from “Emergency on the Mountain” differ from the structural elements in the poem “Mountains.”
Write an essay that explains the differences in the structural elements between the passage and the poem. Be sure to include specific examples from both texts to support your response. …
“However, the Common Core State Standards for writing do not require students to write essays comparing the text structures of different genres. The Grade 4 CCSS for writing about reading demand that students write about characters, settings, and events in literature, or that they write about how authors support their points in informational texts. Nowhere in the standards are students asked to write comparative essays on the structures of writing.” See more here.
Yet this is being asked of ALL 4th grade students, including most students with special learning challenges, students who struggle with English, and students living in poverty whose schools lack the resources to provide fully for their needs.
The PARCC is flawed on many levels, but one key area that is problematic is that it was designed to be administered online. The Providence Journal recently reported that students’ scores on the PARCC in 2015 were somewhat lower when taken on computers as compared to the paper and pencil version. This was completely predictable, especially for the younger students. The computer skills required may be a piece of cake for the adults who designed the test, but are absurd for young students. Still Commissioner Wagner and the RI Department of Education plan to persevere and double-down—all students will take the PARCC on computers in the near future. I fervently hope that this thinking will not push schools into a frenzy of low-level computer skill drilling for young students. Knowing how to point and click, drag and drop, and type in a small box are the lowest level tech skills, and not suitable for young students. If you want to make use of technology, it can certainly be done with a Smart Board with the whole class learning from videos and interactive lessons that the teacher prepares.
We need more teachers, retired teachers, parents, and concerned community members to advocate for children so that they will all be afforded the true, research-based pedagogy that professional teachers know how to provide. The PARCC is a lose-lose proposition for students, teachers, families, and schools. Parents should Opt Out/Refuse for their children. But Refusing the PARCC is not enough. The goal of education is to nurture self-actualized human beings who participate meaningfully and joyfully in a diverse, equitable, and vibrant civil society. Parents must insist on teaching/learning for their children that encourages rather than disregards imagination, curiosity, creativity, and empowerment.