Today’s post comes to us from guest blogger Louise Law. She and I had a fascinating conversation about PARCC testing when I was working in her school district recently, and I encouraged her to write some of her thoughts up into a post. I’m excited to share this with all of you!
School districts across the nation are trying to explain to their communities why so few of their students scored as “meeting expectations” on the 2015 PARCC tests. They are raising concerns about the technology required for students to take these tests, and about the tests’ value as an indicator of educational success. Yet one concern has received scant press coverage: the validity of the questions themselves.
As an elementary curriculum director for a small district in Massachusetts, I have supported the Common Core standards since they were adopted in 2010. Our teachers have worked hard to align our curriculum and instructional practices with these standards, and the results have been positive. Nevertheless, our district faces and many school districts face a large problem. That problem is PARCC, the test that is supposed to tell us how well students understand and apply the skills and concepts embodied in the Common Core.
The contents of the PARCC test are cause for considerable concern.
The reading passages found in PARCC are far beyond grade levels of the students being tested, and it is difficult to believe that the evaluators were unaware of that fact. The reading difficulty level of any text depends on such qualitative variables as sequencing, language complexity, topic and theme and quantitative factors such as word and sentence length. Teachers know this principle — and so do the writers and editors who choose the reading passages and compose the questions for all these tests. A variety of well established research-based formulas readily available online can be used to determine the readability level of a given text. By any number of such formulas, several reading passages in the 2015 PARCC test are beyond the grade level being tested, some by several years.
For example, this PARCC test required fourth grade students to respond to questions based on reading passages from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. According to the widely used Lexile measures of text difficulty, Baum’s famous book has a readability score of 1030, which means that these passages are suitable for an average eighth grader. Very few fourth graders can read these passages with the comprehension required by the test questions.
The third grade PARCC required students to read two Native American myths which, according to several different readability measures, are appropriate not for third grade but for sixth grade. The fifth grade PARCC included an informational passage more appropriate for a ninth grade reading level, and the sixth grade PARCC test contained passages with average readability levels of 10th and 12th grade.
2015 PARCC mathematics questions required students to read through a great deal of language before getting to the math. An example of a single question from the sixth grade PARCC displays an illustration of 4 inches of a ruler and asks students the following:
One size of cardboard can be purchased in sheets that are 3/16 inch thick. The sheets of cardboard are stacked on top of each other in packages. The height of each stack is 2 and ¼ inches. Use the model of a ruler to determine the number of sheets of cardboard in a stack. Explain how you used the model to find your answer. Write an expression that can be used to determine the number of sheets of cardboard in a stack. Explain how your expression relates to the model. Enter your answer, your expression, and your explanations in the space provide.
Have the people who constructed these questions actually spoken to an 11 or 12 year old lately? Or taught mathematics?
There is an obvious discrepancy between the stated intended purpose of the Common Core and the peculiar difficulty of the PARCC test questions. How did this discrepancy arise, and what will correct it?
By federal legislation students’ performance on these tests will affect how teachers and schools are evaluated. For high school students, a passing score is required for graduation, a requirement enforced by the very name of the PARCC, “readiness for college and career.” The stakes are enormous.
As students, teachers, schools, and districts are incorrectly identified as “failing,” publishers will reap tremendous profits selling remedial and test prep materials to school districts eager to do anything to help their students score well. Urban districts will see the proliferation of forprofit charter school chains, and the march to privatization of our public schools will accelerate as the public is convinced of the false narrative that our schools are failing our students.
A high stakes test that presents students with passages they cannot read is not a useful educational tool. Instead, it will create anxiety for children young as eight years old, who will learn to believe that standardized tests are stressful and lose confidence in their abilities. Frustrated teachers will watch their students suffer through these tests, which are not a tool for teaching but an obstacle to learning. More insidiously, the difficulty of these tests may in fact be a deliberate maneuver to undermine support for public education.
Assessments based on PARCC should be suspended until the questions have been more carefully vetted and the test has been validated by education professionals not affiliated in any way with the organizations that created those questions. Until that time, students, teachers, and schools will be wasting time in a futile exercise that undermines teaching and learning.