Op-Ed: PARCC Testing Could Be Healthy for Our Kids, If Done for Right Reasons

Scott A. Oswald | May 18, 2015 | Opinion
Assessments can help improve education and measure student progress – but they can also be used to tear down teachers and put pressure on kids

Scott Oswald
Look, I hate going to the doctor. I hate waiting weeks for an appointment and being forced to take a day off from work.
I hate spending an hour in the waiting room, surrounded by sick people, before being escorted to the examining room. I hate stepping on the scale to learn that I gained another two pounds. I hate needles, and I really hate when they draw vial after vial of blood just to make sure I’m still healthy. I hate going to the doctor, but I don’t hate the doctor herself.

As I read and reflect upon the recent debate surrounding PARCC testing, I find myself drawing many of the same conclusions. I hate PARCC testing. I hate the double test administration periods that disrupt teaching and learning for weeks at a time as we assess students in grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11. I hate that we have to strip computers from students in grades not being tested to issue them to students taking the test. I hate that the impact of testing extends well beyond the actual students being tested on any given date. I hate that PARCC testing has consumed staff resources and paralyzed instruction across multiple grade levels for weeks on end.

And, as a shared Superintendent of two South Jersey school districts, I hate that the test results from an 8-year-old who watched his mom and dad fight last evening, didn’t have breakfast this morning, and may not have anyone to go home to after school today may ultimately impact the perception of a community and the value of your home.

As I read back across everything I dislike about the recent PARCC testing, it dawns on me that most of my displeasure is focused on the testing process rather than the test itself.

And, while I’m not so naïve as to believe that a multi-state assessment being administered for the first time will not have its flaws – flaws that can and should be corrected – I’m not sure it is the test itself that is spurring the parent and educator backlash.

I suspect much of the criticism directed at PARCC testing is tied to the numerous purposes beyond the stated “improving instruction for kids” for which test results will be used. Are parents opposed to taking their child to the pediatrician for an annual medical checkup? If not, why would they be opposed to a quality assessment that offered a snapshot of individual student results upon which teachers can make instructional decisions? And, as a bonus, would anyone be opposed if schools used those same results to strengthen their instructional programs?

The real problem, I suspect, is that the PARCC testing process is grounded in secrecy and security. And, this requirement for secrecy and security stems not from our local school boards or even our elected or appointed state officials, but instead from a Washington bureaucracy that continues its vast overreach into our nation’s schools. From NCLB to ESEA to whatever Washington comes up with next, the regulations that result in the secrecy and security synonymous with high-stakes testing come to us courtesy of our elected members of congress and the senate.

These are the individuals at whom the anti-PARCC efforts should be focused. And, while it is true that New Jersey could thumb its collective nose at the federal requirements, doing so in a calculated manner on a statewide level would almost certainly result in the loss of hundreds of millions in federal aid. Considering that the state can’t pay its bills and meet its obligations now, I doubt this is an option that many taxpayers wish to pursue.

Now, don’t get me wrong. As a practicing school administrator charged with implementing the many unfunded mandates dictated to us by our state leaders, I maintain a healthy skepticism when it comes to the state Legislature and the NJ Department of Education. In this case, however, the efforts of those looking to reform the reform movement may be misdirected at state level officials. Whether PARCC or some other iteration, federal law requires that we administer some form of assessment aligned to the Common Core Standards. The secrecy and security provisions flow from that same law.

Removing the secrecy and security chokehold from the PARCC assessments would remedy many of the concerns I stated above, would end Twitter-gate as we know it, and would likely calm the turbulent anti-PARCC waters.

If the real purpose behind administering the PARCC assessments is to collect data to improve instruction, target assistance to the students who need it most, and provide parents with an accurate snapshot of how their children are progressing toward that much heralded “college and career ready” benchmark, then test security becomes a non-issue; schools can administer the exams in a more relaxed, natural classroom environment; and the narrowing of curriculum and concentration on test-prep become things of the past.

Like an annual trip to the doctor, the testing process may not be pleasant, but at least its goals would be healthy.

If, however, the real purpose behind administering the PARCC is to rate teachers, close schools, and build an argument to privatize our public education system, then the system must continue to be masked in a shroud of secrecy. Otherwise, there is little doubt that widespread cheating– in the name of survival – would ensue.

Assessment is part of the instructional cycle. And, like an annual checkup at the doctor, an assessment like the PARCC can serve as a nonthreatening, annual checkup of student progress.

One difference between the two exams is that the child’s annual checkup results are not published in the local newspaper, are not used to judge the doctor who conducted the exam, and are not used to determine the quality of the community in which the child lives.

The results of a child’s annual checkup are used to improve the health of the child. The results of PARCC assessments should be used for the purposes of improving the teaching and learning process, measuring student growth and progress, and identifying areas where a student may need to concentrate his studies.

Perhaps it is time that we realize those benefits by depoliticizing the PARCC process so that we can redirect our attention to more beneficial activities, like overcoming those societal ills such as poverty that impact our communities and suppress our kids from realizing their full potential in literacy, math, and every other academic and creative area.