Curbing PARCC test won't improve Md. education

People in Maryland should celebrate that the state is going to abandon the PARCC standardized test. The lengthy exam is aligned to the Common Core academic standards and administered to students in English language arts and mathematics at the end of grades 3-8 and twice in high school. According to Gov. Larry Hogan, “nearly everyone in Maryland — parents, teachers, students and the governor want these tests to end.”

As someone who has studied the Common Core and the politics surrounding its implementation, however, I can tell you that replacing the PARCC will not improve public education or satisfy critics of standardized testing. The only way to improve public education in Maryland is to replace the Common Core standards with ones that empower parents and students to exercise creativity.

Maryland adopted the Common Core and the PARCC in the process of applying for a Race to the Top grant in 2010. The Common Core standards identify what students should be able to know and do by the end of the year from kindergarten through high school. For its proponents, the Common Core promises to prepare all young people for success in college, careers and life. The PARCC determines whether students have mastered the standards. This all sounds promising, which is perhaps why support for the Common Core was high shortly after it was rolled out across the country.

Over time, however, support for the Common Core and aligned tests plummeted as people saw what it means in practice. Baltimore City students, for example, walked out of the PARCC saying that they were not comfortable with the test or with their education as a whole. Baltimore teachers have said that standardized testing has squeezed out art, music, history and foreign language classes. Across the country, parents, educators and students have all been articulating the same point: Public education suffers during the Common Core era.

As somebody who took Common Core tests while writing a book about the standards, I predict that the replacement tests will have the features that many people find objectionable with the PARCC. The reason is that the standards themselves demand that students regurgitate evidence rather than think for themselves. The standards make possible computer-based testing; they do not inspire young people to chart a new path.

The most important Common Core standard is the first reading anchor standard that demands that students “determine what the text says explicitly” and “cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.” There are times, of course, when people need to use exact words from the text when arguing about the text. But the Common Core standards, and the literature explaining the standards, make clear that the only way for students to earn full credit on an assignment is to give “text dependent” and “text specific” answers. In other words, students are discouraged from bringing in material from outside of the text, such as about their lives, what they have read in other books or events in the world. In the Common Core era, students must stay within the four corners of a text when writing about it.

Nearly every Common Core assignment or test has the same format. Students are given a passage of informational text and a list of questions about it. Sometimes students write their answers in essay form; other times they select a multiple-choice question. There is a booming test prep industry that teaches students “tricks” to earn higher scores on Common Core tests. But I have never seen a Common Core standardized test that rewards students for using their own words. This is not a problem with implementation; this is a feature of the standards themselves.

As a child growing up in Maryland during the 1980s, my education blended rote work with enchanting things like field trips, guest lecturers, school plays or research papers. In the Common Core era, public education makes students master a narrow range of skills that can be tested on computers. This problem will not be fixed by computer adaptive testing or calling it the Maryland Comprehensive Assessment Program. The people of Maryland need to demand new education standards that makes school a joyous place for teachers and students.

Nicholas Tampio (tampio@fordham.edu) is associate professor of political science at Fordham University. He is the author of “Common Core: National Education Standards and the Threat to Democracy (Johns Hopkins University Press 2018).

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