Passing the PARCC test is the wrong goal

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Anthony Cappetta

Anthony Cappetta

In reading the recent guest essay that the Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellows wrote about the soon-to-debut PARCC test, I was flabbergasted to see their opening paragraph end with the absurd statement that by participating in the test roll-out this year, “students in Chicago will be able to do something amazing: They have the opportunity to pilot the PARCC without the fear of failure.”

I did not enter the profession of education to inspire my students to be great test-takers.  I hope no teacher did.  The notion that piloting a standardized test for which the publishing giant Pearson received a multi-million dollar no bid contract would be an amazing opportunity for our students is down right inflammatory. Instead of letting our students be guinea pigs for testing companies, I hope we as a profession are driven to create the opportunities that change our student’s hearts and minds for the overall betterment of society.

For example, I was astonished a few years ago when some of my students put in numerous hours after school to raise money for earthquake survivors in Haiti even though their own families were barely making ends meet. I was surprised to learn last year that two of my senior students had already started their own business, trying to develop insulin patches instead of using needles.  I get goose bumps thinking back when an incredibly shy student volunteered to explain her mathematical thinking at the board for the first time and her classmates give her the biggest high-fives as she walked back to her seat after nailing it. As I recall the amazing things students have done over the years, I never recall their performance on standardized tests.

I hope that all my students will go on to be a part of a new generation that accomplishes amazing things by finally solving social issues such as child hunger, rampant drug addiction, stubbornly persistent segregated housing, economic volatility and global warming. In order to creatively problem-solve such issues, and the many others that face our world today, our students will need a set of skills that no standardized test can accurately assess.

They will have to use technological advancements that have not yet been invented.  They will have to unite people from across the political spectrum, interact with citizens from across the globe, and navigate ever-changing geopolitical conflicts.  Most importantly, our students will have to figure out how to challenge unjust practices in our own country, just as generations before them challenged slavery and Jim Crow. The fight for marriage equality has been almost fully won across the nation, but as the recent protests against police brutality have underlined, racial equality is still something that eludes our country.

Fighting against unjust policies is where we teachers can lead by example and teach our students “real-life” lessons.  In their essay, the Teach Plus Fellows agree that teachers should not have to teach to a test, yet they seem to conclude that we are helpless in changing the policies that mandate such tests.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  We can and must challenge harmful educational practices.

In a recent report, the American Statistical Association (ASA), the largest organization representing professionals in the field of statistics and one of the nation’s leading scholarly organizations, deconstructed a central feature of the Obama’s administration “Race to the Top” initiative: tying school rankings and teacher evaluations to student test scores. The ASA issued a short but stinging statement that strongly warned against the misuse of value-added models (VAMs) for education assessment.

The report notes that VAMs are generally based on standardized test scores and do not directly measure potential teacher contributions toward other student outcomes.  It goes on to say that VAMs typically measure correlation, not causation: Effects – positive or negative – attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in the model.  Furthermore, the report says that most VAM studies have found that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in system-level conditions. The report explicitly asserts that ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.

This means that at best, teachers have no control over 86% of what students score on standardized tests, and, at worst 99% of student standardized tests scores are out of the teacher’s control. Coming from the foremost organization on statistics, we should immediately stop any school closings or teacher evaluations based on test scores and further study what purpose, if any, standardized tests serve.  The educational justice movement here in Chicago and across the country has been demanding this for the past few years, but unfortunately, very little has changed. Yet.

That brings me back to how teachers can truly educate their students and lead by example.  We must challenge and protest unjust policies like VAM that stigmatize our urban students, teachers and school systems as “failing”.  Last year, thousands of students opted out of standardized tests, and some teachers took the bold move of boycotting the test altogether.  This is the creative resistance that is necessary to turn the tide against the harmful practice of using VAMs to evaluate teachers and schools.  Let’s seize this opportunity to PARK the PARCC in a low-stakes environment before CPS and other school districts across the country have the opportunity to turn it into a high-stakes test.  Not only will we stand on the right side of history, we also will challenge our students to think about what actions they can take to change the world they live in.

Anthony Cappetta is a math teacher at Lindbom Math and Science Academy, an active member of the CORE caucus of the Chicago Teachers Union, and a member of the Catalyst Editorial Advisory Board, as is a former Teach Plus fellow.

  • Denis

    What! No comments? Great op ed Anthony! I was glad to see that you did not advocate doing away with standardized testing but rather just park it in a low stakes environment. Well put. And there are lots of ways to do so that will actually be helpful.