The district met the hot-button issue of standardized testing head-on, offering parents an opportunity to sample the exam first-hand and ask questions of district leaders.
By Matt Skoufalos
As New Jersey schoolchildren push towards the inaugural administration of the PARCC assessment–the standardized test designed to assess their “college and career readiness“–public opinion around the exam has never been more intense.
In an effort to inform district parents in a way that he described as “neither an anti-PARCC [n]or PARCC pep-rally event,” Collingswood Superintendent Scott Oswald arranged an evening for them to try out the test.
Thursday evening, a capacity crowd packed the high school cafeteria to hear a presentation on the exam, ask questions of district officials, and try out the test for themselves.
‘We refuse to push the panic button’
Collingswood Chief Academic Officer Brian Kulak said that when the push towards PARCC testing began, he was still a high school English teacher, “and even the way it was presented then, I was skeptical.
“As a poor test-taker, but—I’d like to think—intelligent person, this does not speak to how I learned or how I was taught,” Kulak said.
“So if you’re going to tell the country that this is the best way to assess teaching and learning, I think that’s a hard sell.”
Kulak said that part of the frustration voiced by parents around the PARCC assessment is that administrators aren’t equipped with the information they need to answer what he considered to be legitimate questions about the test and applications of the data it gathers. Many are suspicious of their children’s academic and personal data being collected for undefined reasons.
“It’s just a total disconnect between academia and this business model of education,” he said.
“If you’re going to tell people that a for-profit [corporation]whose leadership isn’t necessarily in the rolled-up-sleeves mold that teachers are, that they’re going to be responsible or best-suited to determine who’s doing what nationwide, that just doesn’t make any sense.
“I’m all for differentiating instruction and giving kids as much individual instruction as you can,” Kulak said, “but I’m not for privatizing.”
From an implementation perspective, Kulak said, he believes Collingswood is “way ahead of other places” in terms of creating the infrastructure necessary to administer the PARCC.
The district has been involved in PARCC pilot programs for a couple years, and recently rolled out of its Google Chromebook laptops for students, on which the PARCC will be conducted.
Hosting a parent engagement night bespeaks a similar level of commitment to the process, Kulak said.
“As an educator, the conversation we had today was about how our leadership is not creating a culture of fear amongst our teachers, not taking instruction time away just to do PARCC-related stuff,” he said.
“We refuse to do that.
“Other districts are absolutely pushing the panic button and substituting what would be, we assume, quality instruction, for test prep stuff,” Kulak said.
“If the test is good, all it’s going to bear out is that we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing, and doing it better than most people.”
As a parent who’d heard “so much discussion” about the Common Core standards and the PARCC assessment, Collingswood resident Pasquale Guglietta said that he appreciated the opportunity “to get a first-hand view of exactly what it is.
“I’ve got to respect Dr. Oswald for these types of events,” Guglietta said. “They’ve done a good job trying to allay people’s fears.”
Even after sampling the test, however, Guglietta believed his peers likely only would take from the experience whatever they brought into it from the beginning.
“I think partly people are here to confirm exactly their beliefs on how bad it is, and the other side are like me, just trying to find out information,” he said.
“I think it’s very difficult when somebody comes in with a preconceived notion to disabuse them of it.”
Oaklyn Board of Education President William Stauts agreed that the sample test would be beneficial to parents, because “nobody knows what it is; what to expect from it.” He was openly critical of the potential hazards of the test results being used to draw unknown conclusions.
“It’s probably going to be typical of what the state does, where they’re going to publish everybody’s score and look, Oaklyn’s worse than Evesham, so we [must]have a bunch of dumb kids. It’s asinine,” Stauts said.
“If they’re going to track the kid and compare that kid through year to year, that’s fine,” he said. “But just for the sake of taking [the PARCC], it’s immaterial. It really doesn’t show anything.”
Stauts said he hadn’t had any specific feedback from his constituents, but noted that he had tracked the growth of the opt-out movement, particularly on social media.
“People are asking how they opt out, which I don’t fully understand,” he said. “I don’t understand why you can opt out, but if you can, why would you? How does it affect the results? Are all the good students going to opt out? Are all the bad students going to opt out?”
‘Challenging across the board’
After the laptops were cracked, participants had varying reactions.
Vincent Angelucci, a Cherry Hill elementary school teacher, said the test would “definitely be challenging” for students “across the board.
“The kids aren’t used to the technology yet, and the rigor of the test is a lot stronger than the NJ ASK,” Angelucci said. “We’re still getting used to the standards and teaching to the standards. We’re getting used to having our students think a certain way and respond a certain way.”
Woodlynne resident Annette Valle, who works in the Camden public school district, had mixed feelings about the exam.
Valle thought students would benefit from the in-test glossary; she was less appreciative of the interface, which she said would jolt students from section to section and could be time-consuming and distracting to navigate.
“I think all kids right now are very computer-literate, so I think a third-grader can handle the computer with no problem, but I think the format of the whole test is not easy for them,” Valle said.
Valle was also critical of the limitations of the interface for children who need pen and paper to work out arithmetic problems or annotate their reading passages.
“If you have kids that can’t mark up the problems [with a pen], how are they going to do that in the computer?” she said. “They’re going to read and skip a portion.
“My biggest concern is the special-needs kids,” Valle said. “Kids that need to be more focused, the article is so long they’re going to lose interest. There’s kids that would rather play with the computer than stay focused.”
Moreover, she said, the high-stakes testing adds an unnecessary amount of pressure to the lives of children who operate in a world of intense consequences.
“A lot of kids cannot handle pressure,” Valle said. “It’s not how it used to be before. Their life has more pressures. You can’t force them.”
‘It certainly is a political agenda’
Despite the pitfalls of the process, Oswald said that the PARCC assessment is intended to address the Common Core standards in literacy and math.
The overall educational goals are to teach children to write more persuasively with arguments grounded in text-based evidence, to develop their “domain-specific” vocabulary around different subjects, and to follow a continuity of thought from year to year in math lessons grounded in “focus, coherence, and rigor.”
“Prior to the common core, just about every state had its own set of standards,” Oswald said.
“Some were more rigorous than others. The Common Core was adopted by New Jersey in 2010. It took a few years before school districts caught up with developing curriculum.”
Oswald said the Common Core curriculum isn’t perfect, but “overall, it’s a pretty good set of goals for our kids.
“But not every kid’s going to reach all of those [benchmarks],” he said. “Every kid, every adult, every person has a different set of strengths and weaknesses. I’m not sure when we developed this attitude that every kid has to be good at everything.”
Another hang-up of the curriculum, Oswald said, is its stated goal of making students “college and career-ready.
“I’m not sure how you measure college and career readiness,” the superintendent said. “We don’t need the PARCC to prepare our kids for colleges and their careers. Kids going off into a career need to be able to read and analyze as much as kids going into a trade. In America, we’ve labeled kids who aren’t going to college as second-class, and I think that’s a shame.”
Oswald characterized parent objections to the exam as reactive to “state overreach into the classroom,” which he said officials have been working to downplay to educators.
“When you listen to the folks at the state level, they’ll tell you it’s a minimal number of people and they’re all radicals,” he said. “[But] there’s a level of frustration [with PARCC]from our really good, active parents who are active in our PTAs.
“More or less, research and surveys tell us that parents like their local schools, whether their local school is deemed successful on a statewide level or not,” Oswald said. “Now you’ve got this big arm from the state reaching in and disrupting that.”
Oswald said that he believes the core of the opt-out movement lies in the perceived misuse of the test results. Instead of identifying students’ strengths and weaknesses for the purposes of helping them grow, PARCC scores will become, rightly or wrongly, a component of teacher evaluations, a metric of district effectiveness, and publicized in a way “that’s going to affect your housing value,” he said.
“We’ve tied these assessments to so many other things that I don’t believe should be their purpose,” Oswald said. “I think the public and parents are waking up to this.
“It certainly is a political agenda, and as educators [we]think that’s a shame.”