Why is it so important for every one of New Jersey’s (and the rest of the nation's) students in Grades 3 through 8 — and a whole host of high school students taking the new end-of-course assessments — to devote an enormous amount of their instructional time to taking standardized tests? Why should their teachers rewrite their curricula to align with these tests? Why should taxpayers spend a boatload of money on these tests, rather than put the funds into our children’s classrooms?
And why shouldn’t parents have the option to opt their children out of these tests if they don’t believe they are in the best interests of their children?
On the day before Halloween, NJDOE Commissioner David Hespe released a memo that spelled out his reasoning for why it is so very important that New Jersey’s students take the new PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) tests coming out this year. To paraphrase Hespe, the primary reason that kids should take these tests is because it’s the law. His references to both federal and state regulations are, to my reading, little better than thinly-veiled threats against schools and parents: get your kids in front of their screens on testing day – or else.
But in an effort to give an educational reason for this massive testing regime, Hespe also tries to put a happy face on the PARCC:
In speaking with parents and students, it is perhaps most important to outline the positive reasons that individual students should participate in the PARCC examinations. Throughout a student’s educational career, the PARCC assessments will provide parents with important information about their child’s progress toward meeting the goal of being college or career ready. The PARCC assessments will, for the first time, provide detailed diagnostic information about each individual student’s performance that educators, parents and students can utilize to enhance foundational knowledge and student achievement. PARCC assessments will include item analysis which will clarify a student’s level of knowledge and understanding of a particular subject or area of a subject. The data derived from the assessment will be utilized by teachers and administrators to pinpoint areas of difficulty and customize instruction accordingly. Such data can be accessed and utilized as a student progresses to successive school levels. [emphasis mine]All you parents and teachers and taxpayers and students who are complaining about the PARCC just don't understand: this is for your own good! The tests are “diagnostic"! They are going to be used to “customize instruction”! Everyone agrees about this!
Everyone, that is, except Hepse’s own Assistant Commissioner and Chief Performance Officer, Bari Erlichson:
CHRIS TIENKEN, ASST. PROF. OF EDUCATION ADMINISTRATION, SETON HALL UNIVERSITY: So I think it's important to note that, based on the psychometric literature on testing and how you use tests, for a test to be diagnostic -- that means, truly helpful to a teacher, truly able to tell you where a student is with a specific skill -- there needs to be at least 25 items for that specific skill to reach a reliability where you can make a decision about what an individual student knows.
Now I haven't been lucky enough to see the PARCC. So I guess I'm going to ask the question: are there 25 questions per specific skill on the PARCC test, so teachers and parents really have an understanding of what kids know at the specific skill level?
MODERATOR: You can answer that if you wanted to real quickly.
BARI ERLICHSON, ASST. COMMISSIONER CHIEF PERFORMANCE OFFICER, NJDOE: So, the word "skill" here is hard to sort of parse and try to understand...
TIENKEN: OK, inferential comprehension. Let's take that. Are there 25 questions on inferential comprehension?
ERLICHSON: In terms of testing the full breadth and depth of the standards in every grade level, yes, these are going to be tests that in fact are reliable and valid at multiple cluster scores, which is not true today in our NJASK. But there’s absolutely a… the word "diagnostic" here is also very important. As Jean sort of spoke to earlier: these are not intended to be the kind of through-course — what we’re talking about here, the PARCC end-of-year/end-of-course assessments — are not intended to be sort of the through-course diagnostic form of assessments, the benchmark assessments, that most of us are used to, that would diagnose and be able to inform instruction in the middle of the year.Oh, dear…
These are in fact summative test scores that have a different purpose than the one that we’re talking about here in terms of diagnosis.
TIENKEN: So they’re not diagnostic at the individual level, and so it’s going to be difficult for teachers to look at these scores, especially when they get them back in September and October from kids who are no longer in their class, to get fine-grained information about specific skills or standards or sub-clusters — whatever we want to call them — there’s just not enough questions on the test to do that. Thank you.
Bravo to Chris Tienken for getting right to the heart of the matter; maybe now we can all drop the spin and talk honestly. Government-mandated standardized tests are not and were not ever supposed to be used to “diagnose” students and "inform instruction.” The only purpose of standardized tests is to impose accountability measures on teachers and schools.
Since the passage of No Child Left Behind, no child takes a standardized test as a diagnostic tool, intended to help her teachers differentiate her instruction. The stated reason for these tests is so those in positions of authority can use the scores to justify any number of consequences for schools that are "in need of improvement,” including closure, restructuring, and charter conversion (all measures, incidentally, that have little to no research to support them). Since Race To The Top, the tests are also used in ways that are innumerate and inappropriate to assess teacher effectiveness.
These are the only reasons for these tests. Bari Erlichson is smart enough and honest enough to admit it; too bad her boss doesn’t understand what she does.
Of course, since there is no diagnostic value to the PARCC or any other standardized test, there’s no reason for every child in so many grades and courses to have to take them. We would be much better off using sampling methodologies: it would be far more appropriate, far less intrusive, and far less costly.
I know I’m rough on NJDOE, but this time I am going to give Bari Erlichson her due for speaking the truth in contradiction to the company line. She is absolutely right: there is no diagnostic value in the PARCC. It is not intended to inform instruction; it is not useful for a child’s teachers. Which begs a question:
If the PARCC isn’t going to help students, why should they spend so much time taking it, and why should so much of their instruction revolve around it?
We're doing it all for you, kid...
UPDATE: I did the transcription in a noisy airport. Back home, I made a few very small corrections.