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Op-Ed: Here’s Why Our Students Won’t Take the PARCC Exams Seriously

It took a comedian’s monologue to put standardized testing in its place

walter bowne
Walter Bowne

Traditional news outlets have largely been mute, but John Oliver exposed the standardized testing industry in a satirical 18-minute expose that has been lighting up online. A comedian is doing what serious journalists should be doing, if editorial staffs allowed them.

But Oliver missed a vital aspect. He discussed the opt-out movement, but what about the students who raced through the exams? I saw a roomful of students hit the “submit” button even without entering answers, even before I was done with instructions. The test took 90 minutes. Some took more time to write an essay on the survey.

So I called Steve Sweeney’s office yesterday and talked to a friendly guy named Pete. I wanted to complain that 30 percent, or the newly proposed 10 percent, of my evaluation as a teacher should not be tied to a test that means nothing to the community.

He seemed shocked. “Why would students not take the test seriously?” he asked. I said some were taking my AP class and were sure to do well. All had taken the PSATs and SATs and this was just another hurdle. He seemed surprised that kids would not take their medicine.

He said he would extend my thoughts to the Honorable Steve Sweeney, the same politician who has been blocking the vote in the Jersey Senate on the package of pro-parent PARCC bills.

Politicians are not in the classrooms. Bureaucrats at the Department of Education are not child psychologists. Heck, even the head of the U.S. Department of Education, Arne Duncan, has never worked as a teacher. And the creators of PARCC, along with all the advocates of high-stakes testing, have forgotten every teacher grapples with: motivation.

But, logically, why should students care? What’s in it for them? When a telemarketer asks for my time for a survey, will I help them? Almost never. If some reward is offered at the end, the chance to, say, win a Lexus, I may hit buttons quickly, just to finish. It’s human nature. Psychologists must have a term for it. If I gave NJ Education Commissioner Hespe a test that did not count, and that he understood to be statistically dubious, how seriously would he answer the questions? I’m sure he would want the irritation to vanish as quickly as possible.

The results of PARCC, after all, are not issued to colleges, do not appear on transcripts, and do not follow anyone to the grave (yet). The results only seem to matter to bureaucrats who will use these results to evaluate teachers and schools, and perhaps to condemn those same teachers and schools.

It’s like reprimanding a doctor whose patient refused to cut back on cheeseburgers and milkshakes and died of a heart attack. As far as motivation, let’s take the Advanced Placement tests as an example. The darn thing costs $100 a test. My daughter is taking four of them. “Ouch” is right. She studies hard and hopes to earn a high score in order to be exempted from taking those dreaded Frosh 101 courses.

The AP exam matters, as well as the SAT and PSAT and the ACT, because students are vested in the exam. They also pay, or parents pay, for the exam. And we tend to value those things that we pay for. As an instructor for AP Language and Composition, I “sell” the importance of the exam. While I may not buy the “timed” aspect of writing, an artificial construct, I do value the types of writing it assesses: synthesis, persuasion, and rhetorical analysis. The instruction is based on classical models, dating as far back as Aristotle -- and my students learn the first trivium -- grammar, logic, and rhetoric. It’s the foundation of Western “liberal” education -- liberal from libre, meaning free, not from Hillary Clinton.

So when a hundred students sit for the AP exam in May, they are ready for the challenge -- three essays and fifty multiple choice questions on 19th century and 20th century prose. Four hours. No mere walk in the PARCC, let’s say. After all, students have deconstructed and scrutinized and analyzed the prose of Winston Churchill, Jonathan Swift, and Thomas Friedman, as well as composed numerous essays and research papers.

Those reading passages are no casual Saturday afternoon read on a settee. Just try negotiating, dear reader, the prose of Hamilton and Madison in The Federalist Papers. It’s actual rigor, and not just words on a Marzano teacher evaluation. The difference is motivation. My AP students care because I care too.

Writing essays in my Russian Novel course or Modern American Humor, I wanted to impress Dr. Chauhan. Did I want an “A”? Sure, but what I wanted more was when he said, “Mighty fine analysis, Walter. You’re becoming a fine scholar.” The assessment was personal. We had a relationship. A kind word or written praise would make me soar.

When PARCC students get test scores back, they may shrug their shoulders and sigh, “I didn’t even try.” So how valid is a test if the built-in motivation is not present? A diagnostic test is valid, and I use them frequently in the classroom, but a test this pervasive and expansive and expensive should be more than an experiment with guinea pigs. After all, guinea pigs usually end up dead, blind, or neurotic after testing.

And I don’t think we want that for our children.

Attracting girls motivated me to play guitar. Getting published in 11th grade motivated me to write. Thanks, Ms. Ponter. A test is a hammer, and a hammer is not the best, long-term motivator. Doesn’t anyone remember the Hammers in Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”? Sure, it’s great music, but have we lost the message? Are we creating new bricks in the wall?

This is a problem no politician or bureaucrat or corporatized educator has solved, mostly because they do not inhabit classrooms. Dictums like “Do it, and do it well, because we said so” only seem to work in countries where the punishment is banishment, imprisonment, or death.

Schools should stress that freedom in the liberal arts and sciences, in its original form, where the arts taught men (and now women) to be leaders; we need to give sound reasons to encourage kids to run and jump faster, while also having fun.

Perhaps John Oliver can pick up where the Newark Star Ledger and The Philadelphia Inquirer never even began, and follow the follow-up story to the abysmal testing results, which should be available in January 2016.

And my students, accepted into college, some to the best in the land, can chuckle over their PARCC “F”.

Walter Bowne is a writer and teacher from South Jersey.

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