Op-Ed: Teachable Moments — Our Family’s Real Reasons for Refusing the PARCC

Douglas B. Larkin | March 19, 2015 | Education, Opinion
Ultimately, forcing standardized test upon students and schools is a matter of power – and the right to protest and dissent

Douglas B. Larkin
There are plenty of reasons to refuse to have our children participate in the ongoing PARCC exams taking place this month.

As an educational researcher who values valid empirical data, it is clear to me that the results of this assessment will be anything but valid. I believe that there is such a thing as a good standardized test, but the PARCC suffers from serious issues in its construction and implementation. To be brief, it is not a well-designed test at all.

As a former high school teacher, I watch as the test devours time and resources that would be better devoted to authentic student learning. The old NJASK and HSPA test disrupted classes for three days, but the PARCC has turned schools in our state upside down for nearly all of March, to say nothing of the second round of testing occurring later this spring.

As a university-based teacher educator who works daily with administrators, teachers, and future teachers, I have seen how the test has been co-opted by the state’s new teacher evaluation system. The PARCC test has created perverse incentives for performance and strained the capacities of even the most able professionals, disrupting the very learning processes it claims to measure.

As a community member and parent, I have heard the fantastic tales that students believe about the test — for example, that it determines class placement, or that scores get posted on transcripts, or that students will face penalties if they do not take the exam.

I have also heard the awful truths — such as the fact that already lean school district budgets must bear the PARCC’s increasing costs, or that newly arrived immigrant children to our community with little to no knowledge of English are having these tests forced upon them in a situation that can only be described as educational malpractice.

I am also deeply concerned about the consequences of this intensified testing on the mental health of our community’s children. As a citizen, I am troubled by the unnecessary stress and strain that the PARCC exam has created for little apparent benefit.

I have come to the conclusion that the implementation of the PARCC exam represents an opportunistic exercise of power that diverts increasing amounts of public funds into corporate coffers. Pearson, which holds the contract for producing the PARCC, also produces curriculum materials. Any district could reasonably expect that purchasing such materials would improve its students’ PARCC scores; yet history teaches us that such vertical monopolies rarely serve the public good.

These are all sound reasons for refusing to permit our children to be tested, yet it is ultimately a moral rationale that guides our decision.

These tests deceive our children about the goals of education, and the expanded practice of standardized testing itself sends a loud and clear message that the only education that is really valued is what is measured by these tests.

Critical as they are, gains in academic knowledge ought not to be presented as the sole purpose for schooling. Where are the tests that measure students’ growth in becoming participants in a democracy? Who is calculating the impact of art and music (or heaven forbid, recess) on the life of a child? Where is the high test score for the elementary school child who successfully reckons with the death of a pet? Or the “student growth objective” that measures a high school student’s nerve to confront a friend’s racist remark?

We know that such things are difficult to measure, but they are still important. The growth of standardized testing means less opportunity for nurturing the qualities necessary for our students to lead flourishing lives.

I am sympathetic to the argument that schools need to assess student learning, and there exists a need to hold people accountable for their work.

Yet power and privilege continue to place a thumb on the scales of accountability, and the idea of a fair system withers as a result.

Where is the championship high school football coach who will lose his job because his students’ test scores are too low? Where is the promising but poor student who can afford the same high-quality tutoring as her more affluent peers? Where is the public high school where the population of its Advanced Placement classes mirrors the socioeconomic and racial makeup of its district? Where is the crumbling urban school that gets adequate funding for a replacement without the plague of patronage and interminable construction delays that would never happen in a wealthy suburban district?

As a fundamental component of society, education is still subject to the operation of power, and as a result the PARCC exams are not—and can never be—the level playing field that many policymakers presume that they are. The deceptive consequence of these tests is that they present a seemingly objective mechanism by which the children of the privileged can be measured as superior.

The only moral way to deal with such a system of values is to refuse to participate in it. In our family, we have found the issue of the PARCC exam to give rise to what educators like to call a “teachable moment,” and the lesson is about the fundamental role played by protest and dissent in a democracy.

During our conversations at the dinner table, our children have made it clear that they understand this point. However they are also quite happy simply not to have to take the PARCC, and that is fine with us.