My testing — I mean teaching — career

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As a Chicago teacher, by the end of this year I will have spent 2,400 minutes administering three standardized tests. That’s about 1,200 minutes of testing for each student.

The question we need to ask is, do all these standardized tests, which consume nearly a week of each student’s learning time, promote learning?


The newest of these assessments, added to the REACH and NWEA tests, is the PARCC exam. After administering the first round of the exam, I am giving PARCC a failing grade as it does not achieve the fundamental goal that all educational tests should — promoting learning. The test fails to provide feedback to students, fails to provide a grading scale, and fails in its supposed match-up to the Common Core State Standards.

But what does PARCC look like for kids? One of my brightest students, Adrian, is 10 years old, deeply enthusiastic about the color green, and loves magic. He has grown over the year and has emerged as a natural leader among his peers. In class, Adrian thrives when learning from his peers. But PARCC doesn’t let Adrian interact with peers. PARCC doesn’t let Adrian think like Adrian. Instead, PARCC gives Adrian stress headaches. Each day during testing, at around the 45-minute mark, I watch his eyebrows pinch together while he sits in silent pain for the remainder of the testing period.

So what does Adrian get out of this? Students learn by reviewing their mistakes. After an in-class assessment, they receive feedback, correct misunderstandings and learn. PARCC does not provide students an opportunity to review mistakes. The exam has two parts: a writing and math problem-solving component close to the end of the year, and an end-of-year exam. For Chicago Public Schools, there are just five weeks between the two. During the in-between time, PARCC does not release scores from the first exam. Without feedback, students like Adrian can’t review their mistakes and grow. PARCC’s failure to provide feedback exposes its apathy toward learning.

Grading scales explain what students need to learn and do to master a skill, and they show a student’s progress along the way. When we communicate these expectations to students, we enable them to set goals that aim toward mastery. My students were not given grading scales for their written essays, extended math responses, or multiple choice questions. Students had to resort to feats of telepathy to infer test-makers’ expectations of what mastery of Common Core looks like.

The PARCC exam supposedly measures students’ mastery of Common Core State Standards. If this were true, the test’s questions would match the content of those state standards. This is not the case. Here’s just one example. The instructions from PARCC’s 3rd-grade-through-fifth-grade math test explain that all fractions must be written as decimals. But by the end of 4th grade the Common Core only expects students to write some fractions as decimals. PARCC claims to align with the Common Core State Standards, yet the test requires students to respond in a manner that is developmentally incongruous with the state standards’ expectations.

In five weeks we test again. We will endure silence and lack of learning. We will not learn from our mistakes or be able to celebrate our successes. We will be stressed and pinch our eyebrows together and have week-long headaches. We will sit in compulsory silence while these tests give grades with which to silence us.

Rachel Schwartz teaches 5th grade math at James Shields Middle School in Chicago.

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