The problem is too many tests, not PARCC

With the 2015-2016 school year gearing up to begin and the first set of PARCC results set to come back this fall, I thought it would be a good time to post this for perspective.

This post first appeared as a letter to the editor in the Chicago Sun Times as a response to Rachel Schwartz’s “My testing—I mean teaching—career.” 

As a high school teacher, I am often asked by friends and family to explain what’s going on. In particular, I’ve heard a lot of confusion about the new PARCC assessments. It’s time for clarity.

Over-testing should legitimately concern parents and teachers, but much of the coverage on this point has misconstrued what’s actually happening in the classroom. For example, several misconceptions were recently raised by Chicago Public Schools elementary teacher Rachel Schwartz as she described one of her brightest student’s struggles with the PARCC exam. However, Schwartz was clearly more frustrated that CPS requires her students to take three different standardized tests. If CPS were to just focus on the PARCC exam, they would receive all of the information they need about how well students are doing. We must be careful to not over-react to test anxieties by throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

The fact is, the PARCC exam is a tangible way for parents and teachers to see student progress in learning the key skills that will allow them to compete with kids from anywhere in this rapidly changing global economy. Standardized assessments are a way to hold teachers and schools accountable for whether or not students are growing year to year. We need parents to help reinforce this important work at home, but the test allows me to see if I am actually having an impact on my students’ learning.

For example, at the beginning of each school year my students look at their previous year’s test scores and identify specific goals to work on during the upcoming school year. These goals are written by looking at ACT’s College and Career Readiness Standards, which offer suggestions for students to practice so that they get better. As their teacher, I get to watch students take charge of their own learning by setting goals and then working to meet those goals through classwork.

On average, my students’ scores dramatically improve each year. However, under the old assessment, I had to spend time on test prep to ensure students scored well. The PARCC test is designed to closely resemble the same type of reading and writing students should already be doing in class, so I haven’t worried as much about using precious class time preparing for a test. With PARCC, we finally have a standardized test that assesses how students are doing on skills that matter most to success in college and career.

I feel fortunate to teach in a district that has spent the time and resources to carefully write and implement a localized curriculum that meets the rigor of the Common Core Standards and offers kids a core foundation of knowledge and skills. And since I no longer need to spend time on test prep, what students do in my classroom every day meets and exceeds the expectations of the state standards.

Sure, the test is difficult. My class is difficult. But, at the end of the year, students leave my classroom with the knowledge to think carefully, critically, and creatively. Each year I am amazed at the quality of work students produce. High teacher expectations and high state standards are a powerful combination for student success. As a teacher, I want to know that I’m doing all that I can, and a standardized test, like PARCC, designed to mirror what happens in the classroom, is one way that I get that assurance.