Saturday, February 21, 2015

The PARCC Fairy Tale

The fairy tale surrounding PARCC and the other Big Standardized Tests has been tweaked and rewritten and adapted, but some folks still enjoy telling it, and every once in a while I come across (like the brothers Grimm searching the countryside for classic old material) a particularly simple and straightforward version of the old classic. That's what we're looking at today.

Andrea Townsend describes her job as coordinating services for students with special needs in the schools of Greenville, Ohio (northwest of Dayton), but her LinkdIn profile shows a broader range of responsibilities (like food service). She was previously an elementary principal, and before that nine years as an intervention specialist.She started her career as a satellite instructor connected to a vocational school for three years. She has a bachelors in Vocational Agriculture Education and a Masters in Educational Leadership.

Townsend thinks the PARCC is getting a bad rap, and she took to a community website to share that view in a piece that was later picked up by some other regional media.

I feel the need to make an unpopular statement of my opinion. Here goes… I support the new statewide tests. 

So she knows she's out on a limb here. Her piece provides a testament to the mis-information that still persists and the false narrative that reformsters are still trying to sell.

Educators and legislators in our state adopted new standards to guide the instruction for public schools several years ago. These standards are focused on the skills students need to be successful in college or their career or both. The standards look at critical thinking and problem solving skills as well as developing a student’s ability communicate clearly. These skills are paramount to success in our ever changing, global and technology driven world.

Chapter One of the Tale of Test-Driven Accountability remains the same. "Once upon a time, we adopted the magical Common Core." You'll note that even though Townsend is willing to be controversial and unpopular, she's not crazy enough to promote the Common Core by name, but she does support it with the usual unproven assertions. How does anyone know that the standards cover objectives needed for career or college success? "The standards look at critical thinking"? I looked at a zoo once; that doesn't make me an elephant. Nor do I see any standards that address communicating clearly. Nor do we have a whit of evidence of exactly what skills are paramount to success.

According to the website, “The new tests also are being developed in response to the longstanding concerns of educators, parents and employers who want assessments that better measure students’ critical-thinking and problem-solving skills and their ability to communicate clearly.”

Come on, Ms. Townsend-- you're better than this. According to Budwesier ads, drinking beer will make me attractive to hot blondes. According to Tony the Tiger, Frosted Flakes will make me great. As an administrator, you've had to deal with numerous vendors-- when they're trying to sell you something, do you just take their word for it, or do you check things out and verify? PARCC is just a big test vendor. Do you have any proof of their test's awesomeness beyond their own word?

Next she raises the issue of a diverse student population, specifically considering students with special needs. Again, with no back-up other than a quote from PARCC, she asserts that PARCC totally handles a wide range of students-- without ever altering the content. PARCC just allows for different ways to interact with the test, but it is great for assessing students at the far reaches of the scale-- which is really difficult to do. Much has been written about the inadequacy of PARCC's accommodations (here's one example), so we'll need more than just PARCC's word for it here, too.

Acquiring skills begins with a clear understanding of two things. First we must clearly understand what skill we want. Second we must clearly understand the skills we already have. When we have those two pieces of information, we are able to learn, practice and apply skills between those we have and those we want. It is important in education that we have the clearest understanding of the skills each student has and the skills each student needs.

Chapter Two of the Tale includes the story of how the magical PARCC will let us know exactly what our students do and don't know. Again, we know this because PARCC says so. But the PARCC is not a formative assessment, and its results are neither fine-grained enough nor quickly returned enough nor transparent enough (remember, teachers aren't allowed to so much as look at the test questions) to help any teacher-- certainly not to give the kind of help that a teacher gets from her own assessmenbts and data in the classroom.

Change is hard, says Townsend. And some of the process of change has been problematic. But she still supports the PARCC. And she has a quote from somebody's facebook page to back that up.

The lead line says that Townsend wrote this with the support of Greenville City School's Central Office, so it's unclear exactly how much this represents the district's point of view. But It does represent the fairy tale that continues to be the supporting narrative for PARCC:

Common Core Standards are magical and will make all students ready for college and career. To know if they're really acquiring those skills, we must have a magical test that can measure exactly how skilled each student has become, so that teachers can fine tune their instruction. The PARCC is that test.

That's the story, and every single sentence of it is riddled with unproven, unsupported assertions. Townsend has given us a fairly straightforward retelling of the classic, but it still rests on magical standards, magical testing, and magical thinking.


  1. Dear Mr. Greene,

    A commenter on the article notes that it was written “with the support of Greenville City School's Central Office...” Indeed.

    You have looked at Ms. Townsend's profile. Here she was on her way up, being the Principle of a school, with plenty of opportunities to make a name for herself by being AWESOME and BELOVED when she made the awful mistake of taking an administrative job that is pretty much invisible. How will she advance? Seriously, does it matter that you always arrive early and stay late when you are the Director of Administrative & Pupil Personnel Services?

    Every time we read an article by a teacher entitled “Why the Common Core is Supercalifragilisticexpealidocious”, I always think there is a Mentor Teacher position open in the District. More pay. Your own office. You see students by appointment, if at all. Your job? Armchair quarterbacking, plus you make reports about data that the teachers in the faculty meeting only pretend to read along with you, but every time you pause and look up, they know it's time to nod gravely. So all I think about this is, “Hmmm...there must be a really desirable upper-level school district position open in Greenville City. “


  2. Super lucid, Peter! I love this post. When I am the only teacher in a crowd who asks these kinds of questions about the fundamental validity of these tests, I sometimes wonder if some form of dementia is creeping up on me. Why am I the only person having these thoughts? You restore my faith in my brain.

  3. Yes, I agree with Leila, the woman is on her way "up." It would be interesting to see Ms. Townsend's appointments calendar. Who exactly has she been lunching with, for instance?

  4. Teachers are afraid to say what they really feel. I am thinking of another fairy tale, "The Emperor's New Clothes" The PARCC is naked let's just cut to the chase and say it.