What the Testimonies Tell Us about PARCC’s Collateral Damage

Promoted by Rosi

Parents came out in droves to the Department of Education earlier this month to testify on the use of PARCC as a graduation requirement. The testimonies given that day were strikingly similar in message and theme to those last year in the now infamous Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessment in NJ, which generated this ridiculous rubber-stamp report.   The most shameful aspect of this report is that it blatantly dances around the most important issues raised by NJ citizens.

My last post on the Forgotten Testimonies outlined basic descriptive statistics on the composition of those who testified— a group of over 200 that was very heavily populated with parents and teachers. This group was over 97% negative on PARCC– a statistic so overwhelming and so shocking it deserved its own post. Accordingly, people across NJ are appalled at the stark contrast between what the report recommends, and what citizen after citizen testified.

I did an analysis of the themes from the testimonies, and here are the results.

The testimonies show us that the PARCC testing problems are multi-layered. In the central layer are basic problems with the tests themselves— the interface problems, the annoying drop and drag; the plethora of ridiculous questions, the concerns with the curriculum. Then there is the middle layer, the one that affects students most directly: the layer of toxicity now present in classrooms and schools, and all of the terrible ways that manifests itself. And finally, the most overarching layer is the concern over the big-picture, the bad systems and policies in NJ education.  What business do corporations have in NJ schools anyway? Why isn’t the State comfortable trusting teachers? What does “career-ready” mean anyway, isn’t that kind of absurd?

Each of those layers illustrates that the tests have caused massive collateral damage to our education system, and demonstrate real problems with education policy in the state. These issues are not make-believe. They are not pretend, or Union-fabricated problems, no matter what the DOE says, and they are not invented by parents who allegedly need more information. The problems are real, and they are consistent across NJ. These problems affect parents, teachers, students, and families. While the DOE is sort-of halfheartedly dealing with the issues around the test itself, the DOE deliberately refuses to acknowledge, and deliberately refuses to address, the real issues surrounding excessive standardized testing in our schools. And these cannot be solved with better computer interface, or a reduction of actual testing time, or a quick swap of a few standards.

So, in a shout-out to the visual learners out there:


Where is the disconnect?

The DOE is stubbornly only dealing with some elements only located the innermost level— the issues with test itself, the most basic of levels— and ignoring all the other layers of problems the tests present.  Even though, testimony after testimony, last year and this year, make it clear that the outermost issues- those issues affecting the learner and those around the policies that created this mess- are the ones most important to citizens. To its credit, the DOE has given the impression that they are looking at the issues around the tests themselves. They claim they will begin to investigate the total amount of testing time in schools (something which makes me nervous, by the way- if this means they’ll eliminate authentic, teacher-created tests), they are working to troubleshoot technology issues, and they are investigating the standards themselves and how “closely connected” they are to the test items. But, none of these initiatives addresses anything in any of the broader, more important layers of problem in this system- and time after time, this is what matters most to people.

This disconnect between the state and its citizens around the effects of PARCC testing is a deep and significant problem. Since the State works for its citizens (and not the other way around), the blame for this disconnect falls squarely on the Department of Education (whose jobs are sponsored by NJ taxpayers), the (unelected) State Board of Education, and our (until recently, absentee) Governor.

Let me unpack and define the issues that exist in the two outer layers (one today and one next week) as described in the testimonies. If you testified, you may recognize some of your ideas here. Thank you for taking the time to pour out your heart and soul into these testimonies.

At the “Impact on Classrooms and Student Learning” level (middle box):

Theme 1: Loss of joy in classroom
This probably could have been the name of the whole category. If we were to sum up the problem in one sentence— it is that teachers and parents are horrified that their students’ classrooms had become test-prep factories, not places of creative, enriching learning. There was no more room for creative, off-the-cuff lessons; teachers felt pressure to raise ELA and Math scores, squeezing out the joyful stuff. Health care professionals raised concerns over loss of recess and physical activity. Claudia O’Neill, a parent of two boys, told the story of how a few years made a terrible difference in how her sons were educated. About her youngest’s experience with increased testing in school she stated, “School is no longer FUN. It is no longer the place to help students gain real-world knowledge that will help them succeed in life. Mrs. M can’t do her pizza fraction lesson, because fractions are not taught that way in the curriculum. Ms. C can’t read aloud to hear class after lunch because they have no time. And the biggest challenge (besides no cupcakes) is that everything taught is tested and graded. We don’t even use the word ‘test’ now. The cool new buzz word is assessment.” The loss of joy in the classroom is a major theme in these testimonies.

Theme 2: Teaching to tests ruins creativity; Loss of arts, trips; Other subjects sacrificed
Many teachers lamented the loss of these important aspects of public schools; several pointed out that private schools (who are not subject to standardized testing pressures) could still embrace the arts and field trips, and how that in inherently unfair that is. And, parents noticed that things like art are now being assessed. The Alliance for Childhood, an organization of over 100 academics and other educators, expressed concern that “testing will crowd out other important areas of learning” and “cuts off children’s creative initiative, curiosity and imagination, limiting their later engagement with school and the workplace, not to mention responsible citizenship. And it interferes with the growth of healthy bodies and essential sensory and motor skills— all best developed through playful and active hands-on learning.” As parent O’Neill further described, “There my child sat in front of his own superintendent and principal, along with teachers… and stated he was practicing for his Art assessment. He was bring assessed on how he could draw something with his eyes shut from memory. My child was practicing because he knew he was going to be graded on how well he could draw. How sad is this? An elementary school should be a place where a child can express themselves. I went to Catholic school in the 80s and 70s. I remember art was making cards for the sick nuns in convent.”
​ As Amy-First Toland described, “Remember field trips? The farthest my child travels with his class these days is to the computer lab to familiarize himself with the PARCC practice tests and improve his typing ability. This is not childhood.” ​

Parents and educators blame the excessive use of high-stakes testing on a major reduction of creativity and authentic arts learning, an effect that many fear will have lasting consequences.

Theme 3: Tests are unfair to Special Education and English language learners
The passion for vulnerable students was palatable in these testimonies. Educators who work closely with ELL (English Language Learners) students felt that the tests were at best, redundant, and at worst, mean spirited and unfair. People who have close contact with special education students felt that the attempt by the state to put their child in a box was inappropriate and only served to further discourage those students for whom school is already difficult. Both groups felt that forcing these groups to participate in PARCC testing (which may not be at grade level for even mainstream learners) was a cruel exercise and should be abolished.

ELL experts reminded us that the ELL students are tested on a regular basis anyway- the PARCC test offers no new information. As one citizen pleaded, “Eliminate the PARCC for ELLs until they have learned at least an intermediate level of English. It violates the rights of ELL to be assessed with an instrument that they cannot understand. What’s that measuring? Frustration? More crying children, more frustrated teachers, and more exasperated parents and more NJ residents losing faith in their government.” (Sandee McHugh-McBride, who incidentally according to her biography online, has been teaching English as Second Language for more than twenty years at various levels and with a variety of age groups.) Or, this one, “I love teaching. I love Math. I love teaching my ESL students and pushing them to reach their potential. They work so diligently and I’m so upset their diligence will be met with failure. Please reconsider having ELLs take the PARCC Math assessment until they’ve acquired basic English skills.” (Susan Bova)

Do we really live in a state where it’s policy to have ELL students take a test in a language they don’t understand? Good grief.

Theme 4: Pressure felt by students is toxic
Many folks who testified told stories of how their child or students were keenly aware of the high stakes attached to their tests. Several parents spoke of young children who came home from school talking about the worksheets and multiple-choice tests they practiced. Parents, health care professionals and teachers were all concerned that students would associate school and learning with unhealthy stress and competitive pressure, and that’s no good for anyone. As Phyllis Doerr, a Kindergarten teacher, concluded, “I believe that a child’s first experience with formal education should be fun and exciting, and give them confidence to look forward to their education, not full of stress and fear because they don’t measure up.”

A psychologist in Nutley testified that “Students are speaking out saying that they hate school and they are stupid because they are failing the practice PARCC tests and the requirements of the Common Core (when often they are not even developmentally ready to learn those skills). I feel that the Common Core and PARCC are setting up our children, who are curious and eager to learn, for failure. We are crushing their interest and confidence, often at a very young age. If we keep this up, I feel there will be an increase in dropout rates, and a state full of children with low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and poor decision-making skills.” Many people testified that they felt the pressure felt by students due to the PARCC may have long-lasting, tragic consequences.

A parent of a kindergartner described, “Apart from one hour of electives each day plus twenty mins for lunch and ten mins for recess, worksheets and weekly tests take up his whole school day. He also gets homework. One double-sided page on test days and two to three of those on other days.”

Think about that for a minute. Ten minutes of recess for five-year-olds. The pressure inherent in these tests is inexcusably affecting kindergarteners. KINDERGARTENERS. There is simply no excuse for this.

In my next post, I’ll review the next level: the many “Problems at the Systemic and Policy Levels” that were described in the testimonies.

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