As dedicated professionals with many years in education, we at The MASTERS Program Charter High School feel the time has come to start a public conversation about the value of standardized testing (PARCC) as an assessment of what students in New Mexico have learned.
We are, of course, in favor of authentic assessments that measure students’ mastery of skills and knowledge. For example, at the recent Inspire Santa Fe Mentorship Festival at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market Pavilion, we observed our students eager to share what they had learned with their community; the assessment was their expression of their learning before a public audience. These students were excited and proud of what they had accomplished.
We did not see any of this excitement and pride when our students took the PARCC test. Instead, we saw them huddled in front of computer screens, reading arbitrary questions and searching for the one right answer. Education is based on inquiry, exploration and critical thinking; answers are just one outcome of the experience of learning. Instead of seeing our students excited by inquiry and exploration during testing, we saw them suffering from apathy and fear: fear that they might fail and not graduate, fear that their parents might be disappointed, fear that their favorite teacher might receive a poor evaluation, fear that their beloved school might receive a low grade and be punished.
These standardized test scores are one of the main tools used by the state for teacher and school evaluation. Yet we treat these scores as a measurement of teacher and school quality without providing the resources and conditions that would enable schools to be highly effective. With class sizes of 35 students or more and teaching loads of up to 150 students per day in most public schools, teachers cannot reasonably meet the expectations they are evaluated on. As a charter school, at The MASTERS Program we have a small student body, which allows us to teach fewer students, know our students individually and build relationships with them, and recognize when students need additional support so they don’t disengage and shut down. Imagine how our colleagues feel, being held accountable to a system that doesn’t provide the conditions to support student success — and then being blamed for the failure of that system. Schools that fail to make the grade are disparaged, their teachers disrespected, their students discouraged.
Standardized testing has developed as a response to a real problem: Students are graduating from high school without having received a quality education. But these tests are not the solution to this problem. They do not provide teachers with timely feedback or useful diagnostic information; they do not promote a growth mindset in our students. It’s important to note as well that the creator of the PARCC test, Pearson, has a profit motive behind its test. The state pays Pearson for each test. The state pays for the books by Pearson that help students prepare for the test. The state also pays for the books from Pearson that help students prepare for the retest (by Pearson) when they have failed the test. The tests used in teacher preparation programs also are created by Pearson. It was not until we began to look more closely into the PARCC test that we saw the extent to which Pearson is embedded in our education system.
Re-evaluating standardized testing can be the beginning of a much-needed conversation to find more effective ways of assessing our students’ learning. A student’s literacy and math skills can be accurately measured in a simple assessment that takes only a few hours. Our school uses the Accuplacer at our local community college, which assesses a student’s readiness for college-level coursework in math, reading and writing. Better yet, more thoughtful assessments can be designed in which students are prepared to graduate by defending a thesis or demonstrating what they have learned in meaningful ways. One very successful model, the New York Performance Standards Consortium, invites members of the community to participate in these demonstrations of learning. Assessments that support the mission of a school and respect the individuality of its students are more authentic than high-stakes testing, because when it comes to human beings, “One size does not fit all.”
We can do better. It’s time to reconsider the values represented by the PARCC test and prioritize our students’ educational experience. Let’s start by coming together as educators to explore creating meaningful assessments that both promote and ensure authentic teaching and learning.