Teachers give low grade to PARCC exam

PARCC — the biggest Common Core testing consortium — has put sample test questions online.

Teacher Peter Greene, who blogs at Curmudgucation, found lots of problems with the practice test for high school English.

To start with, PARCC must be taken on a computer. It’s “a massive pain in the patoot,” writes Greene.

 The reading selection is in its own little window and I have to scroll the reading within that window. The two questions run further down the page, so when I’m looking at the second question, the window with the selection in it is halfway off the screen, so to look back to the reading I have to scroll up in the main window and then scroll up and down in the selection window and then take a minute to punch myself in the brain in frustration.

Teachers will have to prep students to handle the format.

Questions focus very heavily on finding things in the text that support answers. The first question asks which three out of seven terms in the text on DNA testing in agriculture “help clarify” the meaning of  “DNA fingerprint.”

If I already understand the term, none of them help (what helped you learn how to write your name today?), and if I don’t understand the term, apparently there is only one path to understanding. If I decide that I have to factor in the context in which the phrase is used, I’m back to scrolling in the little window . . . I count at least four possible answers here, but only three are allowed. Three of them are the only answers to use “genetics” in the answer.

I tried the practice reading test for grades 3-5. I picked the meaning of “master” with no trouble. Which sentence — out of four choices — helped me do so? None of them.

When the high school test moves on to literature, it demands that poetry has one meaning only, complains Greene.

Reading the text closely is a waste of time, he writes. He can do better by reading the questions and answers closely, then using the text “as a set of clues about which answer to pick.” 

Another section features Abigail Adams’ letter to John Adams calling for women’s rights. Questions focus on “her use of ‘tyrant’ based entirely on context,” Greene writes. “Because no conversation between Abigail and John Adams mentioning tyranny in 1776 could possibly be informed by any historical or personal context.”

In short, he concludes PARCC is “unnecessarily complicated, heavily favoring students who have prior background knowledge, and absolutely demanding that test prep be done with students.”

PARCC won’t produce reliable results, writes Michael Mazenko, a Colorado teacher. He tried the seventh-grade reading test, which contains passages from The Count of Monte Cristo.  That’s too hard for seventh graders, Mazenko writes.

And, like Greene, he thinks the computerized format strongly favors the most computer-savvy students.

Obsessed by ‘The Test’

Anya Kamenetz’s new book, The Test: Why Our Schools are Obsessed with Standardized Testing – But You Don’t Have to Be, takes a simplistic view of testing, writes Robert Pondiscio on Education Gadfly.

jpeg“Tests are stunting children’s spirits, adding stress to family life, demoralizing teachers, undermining schools, paralyzing the education debate, and gutting our country’s future competitiveness,” writes Kamenetz, an education reporter for National Public Radio.

Other than that, they’re OK.

Believing that testing “penalizes diversity,” Kamenetz ignores strong support for testing by civil rights activists, “who have used test scores to . . . highlight achievement gaps, all in the name of equality,” writes Pondiscio.

For example, a civil rights coalition has called for annual testing to remain in the new ESEA. They want achievement gaps to remain visible.

Kamenetz advises parents on opting out of tests, writes Pondiscio.

Here’s the advice I wish she’d offered: March into the principal’s office with a simple demand. “Don’t waste a minute on test prep. Just teach our kids. The second you turn learning time into test prep, our kids are staying home!” Imagine if Kamenetz and her fellow progressive Brooklyn public school parents did exactly that—teachers and parents could have the hands-on, play-based, child-centered schools of their dreams, and test day would be just another day at school. Unless, of course, the test scores came back weak. Then Kamenetz might write another, more complicated book. And that’s the one I want to read.

Dana Goldstein’s New York Times review highlights the book’s discussion of alternatives to standardized testing.

 . . . She reports on artificial-­intelligence experts who would harness the addictive qualities of gaming to instruct and assess kids online; computer programmers who seek to perfect the flawed software currently used to grade essays and track student performance over time; and school administrators experimenting with new measures of social-emotional growth, like student surveys meant to evaluate a child’s happiness and ability to persevere in the face of adversity.

Kamenetz advocates using “long-term projects heavy with writing and public speaking” to assess students, writes Goldstein. That’s a return to an earlier era in American education.

It also allows everyone in Lake Wobegon to be above average.

Inside a Chinese test-prep school

Students leave Maotanchang High at the end of a 16 1/2-hour day. (Photo: Sim Chi Yin/VII, New York Times)

Rural Chinese parents pay for their children to attend high-pressure test-prep schools like Maotanchang High, reports the New York Times Magazine. Students must pass the gaokao test — the sole criterion for university admission — or face a life of manual  labor, like their parents.

Yang Wei starts his first class at 6:20 am and finishes his last class at 10:50 pm, writes Brook Larmer.  After taking the Sunday morning practice test, he gets three hours of freedom. He shares a tiny room with his mother, who quit her garment-factory job to support him in his final years.

. . . the pressure to start memorizing and regurgitating facts weighs on Chinese students from the moment they enter elementary school. Even at the liberal bilingual kindergarten my sons attended in Beijing, Chinese parents pushed their 5-year-olds to learn multiplication tables and proper Chinese and English syntax, lest their children fall behind their peers in first grade. “To be honest,” one of my Chinese friends, a new mother, told me, “the gaokao race really begins at birth.”

Unemployment and underemployment is rising among new college graduates in China. Yet, “the competition is fiercer than ever,” says Jiang Xueqin, an assistant vice principal at Tsinghua University High School. “And rural students are getting left behind.”

Perhaps nobody on campus is more motivated — and exhausted — than Maotanchang’s 500 teachers, whose jobs hinge on their students’ success. Base salaries for teachers are two to three times as high as China’s normal public-­school wages, and bonuses can easily double their incomes. For each student who gets into a first-tier university, the six-member teacher teams (a head teacher and five subject teachers) share a $500 reward.

. . . The head teachers’ schedules are so grueling — 17-hour days monitoring classes of 100 to 170 students — that the school has decreed that only young, single men can fill the job. The competition to hang onto these spots is intense. Charts posted on the walls of the faculty room rank classes by cumulative test scores from week to week. Teachers whose classes finish in last place at year’s end can expect to be fired.

On campus, decorative rocks bear the school’s motto: “We don’t compete with intelligence but with hard work!”

Yang was “ecstatic” to qualify for a second-tier regional university. His childhood friend, Cao, failed the gaokao. Days later, Cao “left their home village to search for migrant work in China’s glittering coastal cities,” writes Larmer. “He would end up on a construction site, just like his father.”

Those who can afford it try to go to high school and/or college in the U.S.

Exam schools pushed on admissions

New York City’s elite high schools admit students who excel on a 2 1/2-hour exam. A majority are Asian-American. Only 12 percent are Hispanic or black. The teachers union and a group of Democratic legislators want to use multiple measures, including grade point averages, attendance and state tests in addition to the current admissions exam.

Advocates of the bill say using one test favors students whose parents can afford tutoring to prepare for the test.

However, at six of the schools, at least 45 percent of the students come from low-income families, according to the city.

Many of the high-scoring Asian-American students come from immigrant families.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Simcha Felder, hopes to add subjective criteria such as essays, community service, interviews and extracurricular activities.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, also backed a holistic review. “If it’s good enough for Harvard and Yale it should be good enough for the students of New York City,” he said.

Political support is weak, reports the New York Times.

Mayor de Blasio, whose son, Dante, attends Brooklyn Tech, said last year that the test should not be the only way to qualify for the elite schools. But he hasn’t come out for the bill yet.

Alumni groups are opposed.

While expressing support for increasing minority enrollment, in ways like providing them with more test preparation, Larry Cary, president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, said that the existing system was simple and had “a number of benefits,” including “no favoritism, no bias, whether intentional or subconscious, no politics.”

There may be political support to revive the “Discovery” program, which gave intensive summer help to students who just missed the score cutoff to help them qualify by September. The program lost funding due to budget cuts.

Not everyone hates tests

Test-bashing may be fashionable but two new polls show considerable support for testing by teachers, students and the public, writes Jill Barshay in Hechinger’s Education By The Numbers.
Source: NWEA

Graduation exams are backed by 77 percent of teachers and 86 percent of the public, according to Teachers versus the Public. “Accountability is one of the issues where the public and teachers agree,” said author Paul Peterson, a Harvard education professor. (Here’s more on the book.)

Ninety-four percent of students agree that tests are important for understanding what they are learning, according to a survey by Northwest Evaluation Association, a non-profit test designer.

In 2011, 60 percent of teachers said too much time was spent on test prep and test taking. In 2013, only 53 percent of teachers thought too much student time was devoted to testing.

“Formative assessment is shown to have the most positive impact on teaching and learning, yet it’s least understood and not widely practiced,” concludes the report. Only 29 percent of teachers correctly identified a definition of formative assessment. (Checking for understanding in order to modify teaching.) Most could not identify summative or diagnostic assessment either.

Louis CK ignites belated Core debate

The Common Core revolt started with baffled parents who went online to complain about their children’s “core-aligned” homework. Now a parent with 3 million Twitter followers — comedian Louis CK — blames the Common Core for making his kids hate math. 186296970-290.jpeg Louis, we feel your pain write Rick Hess and Michael McShane, American Enterprise Institute fellows and editors of Common Core Meets Education Reform, in the New York Daily News. Common Core defenders think Louis CK really is upset about testing, not about the new standards, write Hess and McShane. The homework “questions he flagged should not be blamed on the core,” defenders argue. But there’s a reason for the anti-Core backlash, write Hess and McShane. Common Core state standards — billed as a “landmark” change in American education — slipped in under the radar. The press didn’t do its job. The issues were not “hashed out in robust public debate.” In 2009, the year the draft standards were first released, a search finds only 453 mentions of the “Common Core.”  That goes up to 1,729 in 2010 when the final standards were introduced and adopted by 38 states and Washington D.C.

That year, Chester E. Finn, Jr., and Michael Petrilli, the president and vice president of the pro-Common Core Thomas B. Fordham Institute, cheerfully observed, “This profound … shift in American education is occurring with little outcry from the right, save for a half-dozen libertarians who don’t much care for government to start with.”

By 2013, when “the issue exploded into the national consciousness,”  most “states had been implementing the standards for years.”

Some criticism of the Common Core has been hyperbolic and rife with dubious claims. But today’s seemingly “misinformed” pushback may be mostly a case of frustrated citizens waking up to a fait accompli. . . . Stealth is a dubious strategy for pursuing fundamental change in 100,000 schools educating 50 million children.

If Common Core standards had been debated openly five years ago . . . But they weren’t.

Core “supporters cannot claim credit for the adoption of clearer and more rigorous standards and then wash our hands of anything bad that happens in the name of implementation,” writes Kathleen Porter-Magee on Flypaper.

Parents don’t distinguish between standards, curriculum and instruction, she writes.  “And what more than a few parents are seeing is confusing curriculum, too much time spent on test prep, and too many days spent toiling on assessments.”

Rhee: Opting out of tests is wrong answer

Opting out of standardized tests is the wrong answer, argues Michelle Rhee in the Washington Post.

Stepping on the bathroom scale can be nerve-racking, but it tells us if that exercise routine is working. . . . In education, tests provide an objective measurement of how students are progressing — information that’s critical to improving public schools.

“Test-crazed districts need to be reeled in,” Rhee writes. But urban students spend just 1.7 percent of class time preparing for and taking standardized tests, according to a Teach Plus study.

 Tests are just one measure, of many, that we should consider when determining how well public schools are serving kids. Let’s gather every piece of information available, and let’s not forget that standardized tests are meant to be objective, unlike other indicators such as peer reviews.

We need better tests, writes Rhee. “Well-built exams can tell us whether the curriculum is adequate. They can help teachers hone their skills. They can let parents know whether their child’s school is performing on par with the one down the street, or on par with schools in the next town or the neighboring state.”

Rhee doesn’t think much of the argument that testing is stressful for kids. “Life can be stressful,” she writes. “The alternative is to hand out trophies just for participating, give out straight A’s for fear of damaging a kid’s ego — and continue to fall further and further behind as a country.”

Why I opted my child out — of test prep

I opted my child out—not of tests, but of test prep, writes Matthew Levey on Chalkbeat.

My wife and I won’t refuse to have our children tested. Taxpayers spend $25 billion a year on K-12 education in New York City. Someone needs to check not just that the money is not wasted, but more importantly, that children’s lives are not wasted.

Tests aren’t the problem, argues Levey. It’s the time-wasting test prep.

If we instead committed to building our students’ background knowledge through a comprehensive, coherent, and sequenced curriculum that includes foreign language, arts and music, we’d make our children’s education more meaningful, and the lives of their teachers far less stressful.

And students would do fine on tests.

Until then, he and his wife have asked that their children be given  extra independent reading time instead of test prep. “Their teachers have been uniformly supportive,” Levey writes.

SRI: Khan helps kids learn math

Nine schools that use Khan Academy math lessons are seeing gains in achievement and confidence, an SRI study reports.  

Use of the free online lessons is associated with less math anxiety, reports EdSurge News.

71% of students liked Khan Academy; 32% liked math more as a result of using it;

85% of teachers believe it had a positive impact on student’s understanding of math; 86% would recommend it to other teachers;

Most teachers use Khan videos to supplement their instruction. Only 20 percent used Khan to introduce new concepts.

It’s too soon to say that Khan works in the classroom, the report stresses. “No single implementation model was used across all the sites, and Khan Academy was not used as the sole, or even primary source of math instruction at most sites, making it difficult to isolate its effects.”

Khan Academy will help prepare students for Common Core math testing, Sal Khan announced last week. The web site now includes thousands of math problems aligned to every Common Core math standard in grades K-12

New SAT won’t kill test prep

However the SAT is changed, test prep isn’t going anywhere, writes James S. Murphy, an SAT tutor, in The Atlantic.

David Coleman, the president of College Board, thinks companies that offer SAT prep services are “predators who prey on the anxieties of parents and children and provide no real educational benefit.”

It’s not the test prep companies that make students anxious, writes Murphy. It’s the test.

Although more schools than ever are making SAT scores optional for application, good test prep will remain important as long as high-stakes, time-constrained, multiple-choice exams are being used to determine who gets admitted to the most selective colleges and universities. Since most of the metrics these colleges use to determine who to accept are based on indelible aspects of a person’s identity or long-term accomplishments like GPA and extracurricular activities, it would be foolish for a student not to try to improve the one thing that can be improved in a relatively short amount of time.

Tricks don’t make much difference, he argues.

Test prep raises scores by reviewing only the content students need to know for the exam, teaching them techniques they have not learned in school, and assigning students hundreds if not thousands of practice questions. It is this work, and not tricks, that overcome test anxiety. As Ed Carroll, a former colleague of mine, puts it, “Competence breeds confidence.”

College Board is partnering with Khan Academy, which will offer free SAT test prep online. That validates the test prep companies’ contention that test prep is helpful.

SAT correlates with family income because more-educated and affluent parents  develop their children’s vocabularies and general knowledge, pay for homes near good public schools or pay for private school tuition, hire tutors if their kids need help in elementary, middle and high school, etc. The advantage is huge long before the student thinks about how to prep for the SAT.

If you don’t have a clue, guess. The new SAT eliminates the penalty for wrong answers, observes Walt Hickey on FiveThirtyEight. That adds “noise” to the results.