The board issued a statement of beliefs ‘regarding quality and valuable instructional experiences and assessment’, but Superintendent Scott Oswald said that no real change will come outside of the polls.
By Matt Skoufalos
Schoolchildren across New Jersey will be sitting down to hours of the inaugural PARCC standardized assessments this week, even amid strong criticism from a vocal segment of parents and educators who fear that the results of the test will be used to further drive privatization of public education.
Motivated by the ongoing discussion both within and without its community, the Collingswood Board of Education felt compelled by public sentiment to weigh in on the impact of the test and the data it compiles.
Last week, the board issued a resolution memorializing its “beliefs regarding quality and valuable instructional experiences and assessments”– a statement offered, Superintendent Scott Oswald said, in acknowledgment of an issue that has incited opposition on an unprecedented scale.
“I’ve been doing this 25 years,” Oswald said. “I’ve never seen anything take on a life like this.”
Individually, several board members hold strong and varied opinions on the assessment, Oswald said, ranging from outright opposition to “make the best of it.” Rather than take a position against the PARCC, he said, “they decided that they would craft a statement that just describes good curriculum and instruction.”
While acknowledging the value to education of testing in general and of the Common Core, Core Curriculum, and Next Generation Science standards in specific, the resolution notes that “classrooms…should be centers of learning, free from political interference,” and that “a child’s educational success and ‘readiness’ cannot and should not be reduced to a single data point.”
As an oblique comment on PARCC, the resolution “urges” state leadership to not mandate tests that fail to provide “quality information” about student performance and program effectiveness, or that provide data schools don’t already have or can’t easily get from existent tests.
“If the assessment provides data that allows us to improve our services to kids, then it fits within our framework,” Oswald said. “The data that’s provided as a result of this assessment really has to be data that we wouldn’t have access to otherwise.”
Another point of contention is the administrative overhead required to set up the test. In Collingswood, where administrators are often deployed in classroom roles, Oswald said, “it’s just consuming people’s lives to get this up and running.
“They’re all being pulled from that because we’re focused on getting this testing right,” he said.
‘We had an obligation to respond’
Board member Tim Farrow, who’s in the second year of his term of service, said that the normally “very quiet board” felt compelled to define its position given the public outcry around PARCC.
“When a majority of your town and constituents are that interested in an issue, we had an obligation to respond in some respect,” he said.
Crafting a resolution that specifically addressed PARCC “would [have]be[en]the easy out,” Farrow said, as would “simply reaffirming that the board supports the district’s policy not to discipline students” who refuse the test.
“If we didn’t support our district’s policy, certainly we would come out with something saying we did not, but to say we support it seemed redundant,” he said.
Beyond criticizing the formulation and execution of the PARCC assessment in specific, Farrow said “the bigger issue is how did we get here to the PARCC and stop this ball that got rolling from No Child Left Behind.
“Assessments are to evaluate students, not teachers, not to rank the schools,” he said.
“Our assessments do that, we like that, and we want that to continue, but we want it to be from our teachers and administrators that we highly respect,” Farrow said.
“If we’re confident in them, we should be confident in them giving the assessments, not the state and federal government doing it.”
Farrow also said the board discussed “whether refusing is the right way to express your disapproval of the test,” fearing that PARCC opponents could create a for-us-or-against-us attitude that would keep their momentum from driving other positive changes in the district.
Board member David Routzahn echoed Farrow’s statements, saying that he was concerned that “the whole anti-PARCC movement seemed to be leaking into other areas.
“While I may not necessarily have great affinity for PARCC itself, I do believe that there is such a thing as a good assessment, a quality assessment, and I also believe that the basis or the general underlying principles of the Common Core are well founded,” Routzahn said.
“We as a board think there are positive parts to an assessment, and here’s how it can be used: to point out strengths and weaknesses of students, so that we as educators can push things along or identify students that may need assistance.”
To that point, Routzahn said, the district gleans a lot of useful information from the state-mandated tests that it already employs, including the Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI) and Scholastic Math Inventory (SMI), which he described as “very, very well used assessments” that provide educators with “very fine determinations on how their students are performing, who needs help, who is okay, etc.
“These are 20-to-25-minute assessments that the kids do, they don’t make a big production out of it, and they get the results the next day,” Routzahn said.
“It doesn’t take any time at all. There’s no prep for it, so nobody can say you’re teaching to the test or any of those kinds of things. Teachers get instantaneous results and a boatload of actionable data.”
Routzahn also criticized the misapplication of standardized school performance data, from teacher evaluations to student test scores to “college and career readiness,” a metric on which even elementary school students are judged (and, at that grade level, by attendance alone).
“You’re telling me that you’re going to take an 8-year-old’s attendance and tardiness, and determine where a school ranks in terms of college and career readiness?” Routzahn said.
“It makes no sense to me.”
‘Start calling your congressman and your senator’
Ultimately, Oswald said, the district recognizes that it is truly limited in its capacity to influence PARCC at the local level because the assessment is grounded in federal mandates that are tied to funding disbursements.
“We can’t do anything powerful and the state can’t do anything powerful,” he said.
“The starting point to change this, if people are really passionate, is that you have to pick up the phone and start calling your congressman and your senator and get in their ear. The requirement that we do all this testing comes from the feds.”
In cash-strapped New Jersey, “the state can turn their backs [on testing]but they’d be putting a whole lot of money at risk, and we can’t pay our bills now,” Oswald said.
“Follow the dollar,” he said. “The PARCC itself is not a federal initiative, but giving a test is. The states that have backed out have to have another alternative. They can’t not test. If you don’t do it, will they rip all your money away? It certainly is possible.”
Oswald also suggested that parents or taxpayers who feel resigned to administration of the test “because it’s required by the feds” should remember that “we elect the feds.
“It doesn’t have to stay that way,” he said. “I don’t feel like people really make that connection.”