Opinion: PARCC Is Part of the Problem, Not Part of the Answer for NJ Schools

Mark Weber | April 8, 2015 | Opinion
Complex online tests can’t address chronic school underfunding, segregation, and poverty

Mark Weber
Is it just me, or are the cheerleaders for PARCC coming across as increasingly desperate?

PARCC — Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers — is the new, computerized, statewide test administered to students in New Jersey, 11 other states, and Washington, D.C.

Our state just finished the first round of PARCC last month. Parents and teachers gauged the reactions of their children and students as they struggled through these assessments. Many of them had already evaluated the tests based on sample questions made available online, or at the many “Take the PARCC” events across the state.

Now the reviews are coming in, and a good number of stakeholders — students, parents, and teachers alike — are less than impressed with PARCC. So much so that, according to the state’s largest teachers union, the NJEA, there were more than 50,000 refusals during the first administration of the test.

Given what I’ve heard from parents and students, that number is likely to grow during next month’s testing cycle. Parents are complaining that the sample questions they’ve reviewed are confusing and age inappropriate. High-school students are grumbling that the tests are poorly written and don’t match their schools’ curricula.

Russ Walsh, a professor of education at Rider University and expert on literacy, agrees with this evaluation. Many of the sample items Walsh tested were far above grade level in their difficulty and needlessly complex.

It’s little wonder, then, that both social media and mainstream press reports are full of anecdotes about students deliberately tanking the tests.
Normally, this would raise serious concerns; however, the validity of the test results was already in question. Some school districts suspended their local exams in favor of PARCC, creating unequal incentives across the state for students to do well on the new tests.

Education Commissioner David Hespe and his staff are now in a panic, as the growing number of opt-outs threatens the May administration of PARCC. Together with their allies in the We Raise NJ collation, they’ve attempted to blame the growing dissatisfaction with the tests on a campaign of misinformation.

The truth, however, is that Hespe, his staff, and the other PARCC cheerleaders have no one to blame but themselves. Rather than judiciously roll out the new tests and acknowledge their limitations, NJDOE officials confidently claimed that PARCC was a far superior assessment than NJASK, and would transform New Jersey schools for the better.

In reality, we have little idea if PARCC is a more reliable assessment or if it predicts real-life outcomes better than any other standardized test. Even the PARCC consortium, in a white paper found on its own website, admits that it doesn’t know if test results vary with the quality of instruction students receive.

Most likely, PARCC, like NJASK, will be heavily biased by socioeconomic status: average scores for schools will rise and fall based on the number of students enrolled in the federal free-lunch program.

Ironically, this is the latest argument that PARCC cheerleaders have taken up: The tests are necessary to show how schools that serve larger populations of students in economic disadvantage are “failing.” Opting out, in this construction, is a luxury for suburban parents that inner city parents can’t afford.

It’s true that standardized tests have laid bare an inexcusable gap in performance between students of differing social classes. Of course, we could see this in the results of NJASK; it’s not as if PARCC is going to give us a new insight into the intense segregation that is pervasive throughout New Jersey schools.

It’s also true that more opt-out activity appears to be taking place in the suburbs than in New Jersey’s largest cities. But that’s probably because parent, student, and community protesters are busy fighting a much larger battle over charter school proliferation, local control, and inadequate school funding.

I’d find the arguments of those who claim that high-stakes testing is a civil right much more convincing if they were helping these urban families save their local district schools. At the very least, those who laud PARCC ought to demand that the state provide the funding the state’s own law says is needed to ensure an adequate education.

According to the Education Law Center, if New Jersey adopts the budget proposed this year by Gov. Chris Christie, the total cumulative underfunding of schools as determined by the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) will reach $7.1 billion.

Where are the demands from the We Raise NJ coalition to fully fund SFRA? Where are the calls from its member groups like the NJPTA to take concrete steps to reduce segregation between our school districts? What policies are PARCC-promoting groups like JerseyCAN supporting to eliminate childhood poverty and change the lives of students outside of school?

Switching to an overly-complex test like the PARCC doesn’t do a thing to help address the real causes of the “achievement gap”: poverty, segregation, and inadequate school funding.

New Jersey’s children don’t need “better” tests nearly as much as they need better lives. Are PARCC cheerleaders prepared to show as much passion for school funding and programs to end childhood poverty as they do for their beloved tests?

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