Worcester Pushes Back Against Excessive High-Stakes Exams
Thursday, March 06, 2014
“I think it's unproven, untested, and unfunded,” said Donna Colorio, a parent and Worcester Public Schools committee member from 2011 to 2013, who believes parents have a right to opt their children out of the practice exams.
The local resistance mirrors concerns nationwide over new, Common Core-aligned tests and curriculum. In the Bay State, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) is being phased out in favor of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) — and some students (about 81,000) are being asked to take double doses of testing this term.
And while most students won't see the new test at all, others will sit through it multiple times: Two classes of third graders at Canterbury Street School will face five sessions of the English Language Arts assessment, in addition to their first year of the MCAS.
“Students who are piloting the PARCC could have up to ten hours of additional testing this spring,” said school committee member Tracy Novick, who labelled the pilot another round of stress on the system, parents, teachers, staff, and, most of all, students.
“We can say it doesn't count; that doesn't mean much when you're eight,” she said.
No educational value perceived by parents
“The state will have to arrest me and drag me through the courts along with all the local and national media attention that will bring as my children will NOT be forced by the state to take a field test for a 'nonprofit' testing company,” attested Mike Watson of Mendon, on a Facebook page for Massachusetts parents opting out of the PARCC pilot testing.
According to the DESE, some 50 districts across the state will be trialing the new test between March and June, including select grade levels in 31 WPS buildings. But the results won't be shared outside of the DESE and the companies piloting the test, Pearson and Educational Testing Service.
Ed Moynihan, the father of a 10th grade student at Burncoat High School, is asking school officials Thursday to provide more information to parents of those children scheduled to participate.
“I think that I have a right as a parent to opt out of testing that is part of a research study,” he said Wednesday. “I have a right, not just to opt out, but to opt in.”
“This is taking more time out of her already limited amount of time learning,” Moynihan said, cutting into both learning time and preparation for the MCAS.
Novick said the new system could be better than the outgoing exam, but there were still issues, including with its electronic format. “What does having a student take an online assessment actually test? In part, it tests how well that student interacts with a computer,” she said. “We don't teach that; how can we test it?”
Nationwide concern over standardized testing culture
In a nine-year research study by the National Research Council, published in 2011 chronicling the previous decade's emphasis on testing following 2001's federal No Child Left Behind act, researchers found little learning progress attached to incentivized testing.
“The tests that are typically used to measure performance in education fall short of providing a complete measure of desired educational outcomes in many ways. This is important because the use of incentives for performance on tests is likely to reduce emphasis on the outcomes that are not measured by the test,” wrote Michael Hout and Stuart Elliot, who said evidence suggested tying tests to high school diplomas decreased graduation rates without increasing achievement.
A number of groups, including United Opt Out National (billed as the movement to end corporate education reform), are organizing under the umbrella of Testing Resistance and Reform Spring, and advocating for the option to not take part in forthcoming new standardized regiments.
“Opting out of standardized testing is a potentially powerful tool in efforts to halt the damaging consequences of the overuse and misuse of tests,” according to Monty Neill, the executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.
Concerns are focused around standardized testing's increasingly influential role in shaping decisions about students, teachers, and districts; the loss of classroom time and added administrative burden; and over ceding local educational control to large consortiums. With online assessments, there's a question of an economic digital divide impacting low-income students' scores.
“The people who should be making educational decisions for my child are my wife, myself, and her teachers,” Moynihan said. “Testing is not teaching.”
State says no way to 'opt out'
In a response to WPS Chief Research and Accountability Officer David Perda late last month, DESE's legal counsel contends in no uncertain terms that the pilot PARCC isn't optional.
“Participation in the PARCC assessment field test is mandatory and not subject to opting out,” writes Rhoda Schneider. “State law mandates that all students who are educated with Massachusetts public funds participate in the statewide student assessment program, and it includes no 'opt-out' provision for parents to remove their children from participating.”
That's “not a law, it's a legal opinion. That's my opinion,” responds Colorio. “(The pilot) is not a MCAS test, it is not a mandated test — it is an experimental research project.”
The WPS student handbook states that students who opt out of state or district standardized assessments will not be penalized or face disciplinary action, “except as prohibited by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts or of the United States.” (The MCAS is a graduation requirement.)
Some districts across the state are asserting they and parents have the right to choose to participate in the practice exam. In January, the Norfolk School committee voted to allow parents to opt out. “We believe that since this is in addition to the MCAS that the children are required to take and only certain students of the 4th grade will be forced to take this test, the parents of these selected students should have the right to decide whether their children are to participate in this trial,” that school board wrote to the DESE.
Testing a rising tide nationwide
Last December, the WPS committee contemplated a waiver from the pilot testing, but the motion failed by a 4-3 vote.
Moynihan said he had come to believe standardized testing was “choking education across the country.”
A consortium of 17 states and the District of Columbia, PARCC received an $186 million grant through the federal Race To The Top competition to support the development and design of the assessment system.
Another group, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, is being rolled out as an alternative Common Core-aligned test in 23 other states.
Related Slideshow: Central Mass Schools with the Highest Graduation Rates
Non-grad completers: Students that have successfully completed school according to local requirements, but whose MCAS test scores (scores lower than 220) prevent them from receiving an official diploma.
Students in cohort: Number of students eligible to graduate in 2013.
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