I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Saturday, April 5, 2014

NJ Field Tests PARCC: Who Are You Gonna Believe?

According to the mandarins at the NJDOE, the new, computerized, Common Core-aligned PARCC tests have had a field test this week that was just oh-so-super!
State Department of Education officials said 60 percent of the schools that will administer the PARCC test next spring are participating in the practice run. Other districts, like South Orange-Maplewood, are working with neighboring schools to monitor the exam’s implementation.
“As problems get identified they are being resolved,” acting Education Commissioner David Hespe told the Senate Budget Committee during a hearing Thursday in Trenton. “Every field test is going to reveal problems. That’s why we do it.”
The dry-run allows districts to determine their technological capacities for the computer-based exam. Roxbury has spent $500,000 in upgrades to meet the technical requirements of the PARCC, including improvements to its software, network infrastructure and computers.
Rehman is using three different devices — Chromebooks, iPads and desk-top computers — to see which work best.
“That’s music to my ears,” assistant Education Commissioner Bari Erlichson said. “One of the principals of the design of PARCC is that students should be able to take the exam on (various devices). It is agnostic to the device and the student should see the same item in the say way.”
Two points before we go on:

1) Are we sure the conditions of the field test are truly analogous to the conditions of the full implementation of PARCC? Are the tests being hosted on similar servers? Can the state's individual school districts handle the bandwidth requirements and hardware needs of a full-scale administration of PARCC?

It may be music to Erlichson's ears that PARCC works as well on a desktop as a Chromebook... but how confident is she that the field test has appropriately mimicked the conditions of an actual administration, with the dozens (at least) of different hardware and network configurations that will be used across the state, and the millions of students who will be taking the test simultaneously?

Former Acting Commissioner Cerf had a funny habit of picking and choosing what he considered to be "urgent": properly studying the effects of charter schools, for example, was not high on his list of "urgent" matters. But he was always darned sure that we had to roll out the PARCC and attach high stakes to the results -- like teacher evaluations -- as quickly as possible, even if the tests had never been properly vetted.

It seems to me, however, that the only way we can be sure these tests will work the way they are supposed to is to have an actual full-scale administration. Why are we attaching high stakes to PARCC before we have even seen how it works when it is fully implemented? Isn't the far more logical course of action to try out the PARCC, see how it goes, then make policies about which actions to take based on its results?

Or is that not "urgent" enough?

2) Roxbury is a "GH" district as listed in the state District Factor Groups: it's not the lowest in terms of student economic disadvantage, but its still a relatively affluent district. Like many suburban schools in the Garden State, it's had to struggle with the insipid 2% tax cap and declining state aid; however, it is still a relatively well-resourced district, especially compared to the Abbots and non-Abbotts that serve large proportions of students in poverty.

So it's nice that Roxbury got through the PARCC -- but that's not really the test, is it? You see, under Chris Christie, New Jersey's school funding equity -- at one time, the envy of the nation -- has been steadily declining. How can districts without the necessary technology resources can hope to compete with districts, like Roxbury, that are able to pull off the PARCC? How can Hoboken -- a district being financially devastated by the segregated charters the state forces it to fund -- possibly find the resources needed to administer the PARCC as easily as Chatham, a community with a strong tax base, far fewer students in economic disadvantage, and no charter schools leeching off of its budgets?

PARCC -- like AchieveNJ, aka Operation Hindenburg, the new teacher evaluation system -- is yet another way to exacerbate the growing inequality in New Jersey's schools. AchieveNJ is putting an undue burden on schools without adequate resources; so, undoubtedly, is PARCC.

But this reality doesn't help sell the image of a testing regime that is bright and sunny and happy:
The computer-based PARCC exam has generated plenty of anxiety around the state. The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has called for delaying its debut next spring, saying teachers and districts need more time to adapt to both the subject matter and format.
Hespe told lawmakers Thursday that about 71 percent of the state’s school districts are ready, but that leaves 29 percent unprepared. Officials are working on contingency plans that might include using paper and pencil, Hespe said.
Teachers have testified at state Board of Education meetings that the PARCC, and the more rigorous curriculum it assesses, are creating chaos. The fact that they are being judged by their students’ performance ratchets up the stress.
But Erlichson said the state has planned for years for the rollout of the Common Core curriculum and the PARCC. A handful of schools first tested the exam last year, she said, and that experience led to changes and improvements.
Schools were asked to volunteer for the practice test and were given a 20-day time frame that allows them to decide when and how to administer it. A second round will be given in late May, she said.
“From a test administration standpoint, we need to give folks the information they need to feel confident,” she said. “I’m delighted to see the sharing of these tech folks.”
I mean, why don't they just hire Pharrell to be the new spokesman for the NJDOE? Bari Erlichson could borrow his hat...

NJDOE Spokesman Pharrell Williams: "Happy, happy, happy, happy..."

The truth is that, under Cerf, NJDOE has lost just about all its credibility with teachers in this state. And if you go to one of the few places where teachers can actually give feedback about the PARCC field test -- testingtalk.org -- you'll find the reviews are not very good. A few samples:
The tests were an embarrassment. The passages on most days weren't so bad and yes I know day three one passage that was high but it was the length of the tests and some of the questions. But we shouldn't have expected better. Only thing that made it better was the way kids came in a little more knowing and in my school a little less stressed about the exam. I'm in a middle school and the kids came in knowing it will be difficult. The work we did bookmarks, centers , reading marathon, leveled questions based on where a student is made them more relaxed. Discussion around the social I justice of these tests made them more knowledgeable, the realization that these tests shouldn't define anybody made them stronger. Thank you tc for helping with that.
I just can’t stop thinking about the question of who is this test for. I work with eighth graders in an inclusion program. At best, these tests make then miserable, at worst, a feeling of utter helplessness. What do they gain from this? Does a Pearson rep contact the family with insight into their child as a learner? Teachers in NYC DOE have to give up teaching time to score the test for another grade, for someone else’s students. At best, this test which was created by someone else will be used to evaluate the teacher as part of “holistic” process that just happens not to get student or parent feedback. So, who exactly is a “stakeholder” ? There is a much better way to use resources and I think that a real conversation need to begin. Let’s start valuing the input of those who we should value and stop allowing outside forces to evaluate there way into our coffers.
As most of you are aware, the PARCC in NJ will consist of two, 20-day windows for testing in the first year. That is a total of 40 days of testing occurring in a school or almost 25% of the entire school year. Furthermore, a speaking and listening testing component will be added in the 2015-2016 school year which will require an additional number of testing days.
Also, we (school districts) have been told by NJDOE officials that an online test is part of the world of digital learning and I agree with this, however, this test will be conducted on the very devices our students use to learn digitally!
That means that the devices we use to learn digitally will not be accessible for 25% of the school year because they will be used to administer a standardized test.
Schools do not have extra devices sitting idle that can be used twice a year for 20 days at a time. Computers are used by students daily to learn. They are the pencils, notebooks and textbooks of the 21st century. Due to the extensive testing schedule that will take place next year, our students will be without those learning tools for 25% of the school year.
Finally, schools have always tried their best to ensure that curriculum drives technology purchasing. That is, we purchase technology in schools to meet the needs of what occurs in the classroom. Districts are now beginning to purchase technology equipment to administer a test and not because of a learning need. Thus the cost of testing will grow exponentially.
I have three questions for NJDOE officials, state legislators, etc.:
1. How can we support the PARCC testing when that very test will stifle digital learning for 25% of the school year?
2. How much additional money should taxpayers be expected to pay for the PARCC test?
3. As our students continue to perform in a connected world, shouldn’t we be wary of putting digital testing ahead of digital learning? 
Yes, this is unscientific -- as unscientific as NJDOE's contention that the PARCC field test was just fine.

The fact is that we just don't know how it went, or whether it will go well in a year. We just don't know. We need to properly assess this field test, then run a no-stakes administration across the state with data and results open to the public so the PARCC can be properly vetted.

Until that happens: NJ teachers, go to testingtalk.org and leave your thoughts about the PARCC field test. You are the ones who were there; you are the ones the public needs to hear from.

Anything other than the observations of real teachers is nothing more than happy talk.


edlharris said...

Down in Prince George's County Public Schools in Maryland, we will not be using Chromebooks and iPads because it has been determined that PARCC test will not work on those platform.
Also, considering the students will mostly be typing for the three days of testing this week, iPads seem a poor choice anyway.

edlharris said...

PS, we are glad we got rid of Dr. John Deasy and Dr. William Hite.
We are a suburban district but with many of the same characteristics of urban schools. Unfortunately, Dr Hite tried to do his Broadie thing on a suburban school in Bowie and the parents and city officials shut him down.
So, he quit.

Antoinette Fellowes said...

Who is behind testingtalk.org and what will be done with the results of the survey? I need to know more before I pass this on to our members.