Latino parents vie for input on PARCC exam

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Margarita Avalos asks a question about the new PARCC exam at a recent forum  in Gage Park.

Photo by William Camargo

Margarita Avalos asks a question about the new PARCC exam at a recent forum in Gage Park.

Moments after the morning bell rings at Irma Ruiz Elementary in Pilsen, Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro asks the parents scattered across the cafeteria to draw closer and form a circle. Now that the students have lined up and made their way to class, the 20-or-so moms and dads are ready to be drilled on a topic they’ve been dreading for months.

“How many people here have heard of something called ‘Common Core?’ ” Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro asks in Spanish. A handful of parents raise their hands.

“OK. And how many have heard of a big change that’s going to make your kids’ classes a lot harder?” Every hand in the room shoots toward the low ceiling.

Across the country and in Chicago, parents have rallied against the new PARCC exam, a standardized test aligned to the Common Core Standards, citing ambiguous questions and saying it represents an unreasonable jump in academic expectations.

But for those whose kids are not native English speakers, the cloud of doubt surrounding the new test is doubly worrying. And national advocates say until the test has been proven effective, parents are right to be concerned.

“Because there’s been this politically-mandated rush to get Common Core on the books, it really hasn’t been sampled across diverse communities. They’re just being asked to take it at face value,” says Robert Schaeffer of FairTest, a group that is critical of annual standardized testing. “A lot of parents, especially in non-English communities, are wondering whether this is ready for prime-time.”

Concerns reached all the way to city leaders, too. Recently, CPS officials announced they’ll only require 10 percent of schools in the district to give the PARCC, in what they are calling an “expanded pilot.” State education officials, however, are threatening to withhold federal funds under that scenario, and state law calls for all Illinois students to take the PARCC or some Common Core-aligned standardized test. English-learners are exempt from the English portion of standardized tests, but only in their first year after arriving in the U.S.

Vonderlack-Navarro says she is not convinced the state’s PARCC consortium did all it could to include English-learners students in preparations for the PARCC. For example, the PARCC–like the ISAT before it–will offer a Spanish version of its math exam, but that version was never piloted in Illinois, an oversight she calls “unconscionable.”

“Hungry for information”

Vonderlack-Navarro’s presentation in Pilsen is her latest stop on a wide-scale information campaign launched by the Latino Policy Forum, a Chicago organization whose mission is to involve the city’s Hispanic population more directly in local government. Vonderlack-Navarro, a research associate for the Latino Policy Forum, has been bringing her presentation to groups of Latino parents all over the city who she says are “hungry for information” on their kids’ changing curricula. The presentations began in September and have already reached more than a thousand Latino parents.

The hour-and-a-half PowerPoint session provides reams of numbers and information on the history of Common Core. In the middle, Vonderlack-Navarro passes out two sheets of paper. On one are the familiar multiple-choice questions given on the state’s now-retired ISAT exam. On the other is a quintessential PARCC problem–a fractions quiz in three parts that asks students to drag numerical icons into boxes to complete an operation.

“I think the new test makes more sense–it makes you think more, not just [pick by] eenie- meenie-minie-moe,” said Luz Melesio, a mother of three CPS students, as she looked down at the two sheets after the presentation. Melesio said Vonderlack-Navarro’s walk-through made her feel, for the first time, as though she could be involved in the shift to the new test, which still makes her uneasy.

“I’m just not sure if teachers will have good strategies for helping kids with it, especially with taking the test on a computer,” she said.

Advocates of the PARCC say these parents shouldn’t worry that their children will be unfairly penalized or “left behind”–the new standards are a leap for sure, but it’s a leap the whole state will take at once. Take the 2014 ISAT scores: The test was more closely aligned to the new standards and the drop in scores was more-or-less even across the board, regardless of demographic or learning ability.

Not soon enough

For Barbara Radner, giving her own presentation to educators across town, the PARCC exam can’t come to Chicago soon enough.

Radner, a professor of education at DePaul University, spoke at a “PARCC Preview” workshop at the Chicago History Museum and praised the test for going beyond facts and numbers to test kids on their critical thinking skills. If children don’t develop these skills, Radner said, “they’ll be counting on their fingers their whole lives.”

Radner is confident the test will pass muster for a diverse group of students.

“This test has gone to greater lengths to be fair to kids–and to accommodate kids who need extra help–than any test I’ve ever seen,” Radner said. She pointed to a manual published by PARCC administrators cataloguing special measures to be taken for students with special needs and extra resources that should be ready for English learners: extra time, extra proctors available to explain questions, test prompts adapted into Spanish and other languages, and more. Since the exam is computer-based, the description of extra help to be provided is more detailed.

Whether CPS can provide all these resources, however, is another question. After her stop in Pilsen, Vonderlack-Navarro hopes she’s convinced more parents to approach teachers and administrators with questions about CPS’s ability to put these accommodations into practice.

Many of them are from countries that set federal assessment standards, so the idea of Common Core isn’t beyond them.

“In a lot of ways, immigrant communities could have been natural allies to the Common Core movement, but I don’t think advocates did a good job tapping into that,” Vonderlack-Navarro said. “Instead, a lot of these parents feel like no one is talking about them–they feel like they never had a seat at the table.”