Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Why One Teacher Opposes the PARCC Exam

Mary Ellen Redmond is a veteran teacher in Massachusetts, home of the most highly rated schools in the nation. Schools in the state will begin to administer the PARCC test this spring, even as the number of states supporting PARCC has dwindled from 26 several years ago to only 10 now. And Ms. Redmond would certainly support a withdrawal of her state, as she "cannot support the PARCC exam" and encourages others to voice their concern. To understand her reticence, she explains the serious concerns and criticisms she has of this new test:

In the literary analysis section of the sixth-grade sample test online, students have to read two excerpts: one from “Boy’s Life” by Robert McCammon, and “Emancipation: A Life Fable.” The final task is an essay: “Write an essay that identifi es a similar theme in eachtext and compares and contrasts the approaches each text uses to develop this theme. Be sure to support your response with evidence from both texts.” Say what? This is a multilevel task requiring very high levels of synthesizing and analyzing.
Sixth-graders are just beginning to extract theme from a text and put it into a statement. To compare and contrast two texts is a cumbersome task that takes time to plan and organize. The wording is not kid-friendly: “to contrast and compare the approaches,” I can hear the questions in my students’ minds: What’s an approach? How do I compare an approach? This question doesn’t even allow the struggling ELA student to enter the testing arena.
Furthermore, the thirdsection of the test is the narrative section. In the sample test, students read an excerpt from a story. In this case, it is “Magic Elizabeth,” by Norma Kassirer. Here is the task: “In the passage from ‘Magic Elizabeth,’ the author creates a vivid setting and two distinct characters, Mrs. Chipley and Sally. Write an original story about what happens when Sally arrives at Aunt Sarah’s house. In your story, be sure to use what you have learned about the setting and the characters as you tell what happens next.”
Students need to glean details from setting and character development and then continue them in an original story. This task requires a broad subset of skills. It would take four to six weeks to teach,review and practice these skills for students to approach this task with confidence. But why is this task on this test? Does this prepare students for college or a career? No: It is a specialized subset of skills for a writer.
I recall criticism about the MCAS long composition. PARCC supporters said that no boss was going to ask her employee to write a personal essay about their summer vacation. Well, no boss is going to require this narrative task, either. The narrative writing task has no place on a high-stakes test. Should I teach short story writing in my classroom? Absolutely. But don’t set my students up for failure using this as a part of statewide assessment.

These are legitimate and serious concerns. And, all concerned parties, from parents to educators to the legislators making the rules, should go online and scrutinize these exams. People should take practice tests themselves, and they should sit with their children as they try to navigate the assessment. It may - and should - change some minds.

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