Thursday, April 28, 2016

How Does a Veteran PARCC Refuser Feel About PARCC?

It's almost May, which means it's almost PARCC Season here in our school district. This year we're only taking the "End-of-Year" test, which I have to put in quotes because the 4th marking period is barely underway: this is NOT the END of the year by any means, not with 7-8 weeks left! (Last year we had a PARCC window just before Spring Break and another only a couple weeks afterward - NUTS!)

At any rate, neither child took PARCC last year,  and our refusal letters have been sent for this year as well. This afternoon, The Monkey began to write down her thoughts about PARCC: she wanted a "brain dump," a place where she could put into words her impressions from last year and some thoughts about the test and how she'd like to spend the time this year, hoping that they could be read publicly. I haven't really edited, just posting what she wrote, in her own words, at her request. Without further ado, I give you: MONKEY!

My idea of the PARCC testing
By: 5th grader at MES

    I am a 5th grade student at MES, and I have to go through the PARCC testing. I am in 5th grade, so this is only my second year of refusing PARCC (in 3rd grade, I had to take the MSA instead). As I have not actually taken PARCC, I do not know what the actual test is like (but I have taken the sample ELA test). I am assuming though, that it is not very easy, because when I was in 4th grade, and, if I remember correctly, they gave us 95 minutes for the test with 60 questions I think they said. So it must have been hard. Even if they had taken one minute for each question, it still would have left us with only an hour to do the test. Maybe because they wanted us to finish in time.

    At one point in the PARCC testing, they said to the 4th grade students something like, “And at the end of the test, you will find a question where you must make up a short story at least three paragraphs long, using the words below.” That was one of the questions! It starts to make me wonder how hard the test really is. That also brings me to think, if it’s really that hard for all of the questions, then maybe the test is too hard for the students, and therefore might be an unfair test to young students. My mom told me that they use the students grades on PARCC, partly to test the teachers. If they give the students a really hard test, then their score wouldn’t be high, and then the teachers would need to teach “better”. I like my teacher just the way she is. She is a great teacher.

     My mom also told me that in the manual, the people who made PARCC said that non-testing students can’t be seated in the room with the testing students, because it would be a distraction to the other testing students. [Mom's note: this was explicitly stated in last year's PARCC administration manual, although the language has been changed for 2016.] Last year, I refused the PARCC, but they still kept me at my normal seat, next to testing students. My mom asked the school if I could go help out in other classrooms, but yet, they still had me stay in the classroom for the whole testing time, every testing day. It was kind of annoying, but it did provide me with plenty of time to read or think.

    Although PARCC gave me some good things too. I missed some of class time (but not all, which was good, because I like school), so I could have a “brain-break” thing, which was very useful. I also got to read a lot because since I refused, I just sat there in the room, had the headphones on that they provided us with (to block out any distracting noise), and simply read the whole time. After that very long period of time reading, my reading grade went up. So in a way, by refusing PARCC, I improved my reading (although I am very glad that they don’t say that if we take the test, it will make us smarter, because it didn’t make me any smarter, I actually got smarter by refusing the test, although not directly.)

A couple things I would love to do instead of sitting around for an hour to two hours each time, would be:

    Help out in another classroom
    Finish any other schoolwork
    Write a story
    Do anything useful

Opt-Out 2016: Part the First

And so it begins.....

To Whom It May Concern:

    Our daughter Monkey will NOT be taking the PARCC assessments in the 2015/2016 school year. As we did last year, our family is once again refusing to participate in the PARCC testing of our children. We feel that we have much more complete and relevant information about how our children are doing from the reports their teachers give us, which comes on a timely basis and is specific to their educational needs, strengths, and weaknesses, unlike feedback from PARCC. We are primarily concerned (in academic terms) with how our daughter is learning; we are not interested in whether her education, as measured by test scores, is superior to that of children in any other jurisdiction, and we feel that the scores themselves are not likely to be indicative of the quality of her learning or of her teachers.

    We support our children’s schools and teachers, and we thank
Monkey's teachers for their teaching and support of her education thus far. However, we do not support the time and money that standardized testing takes from the school year, nor the unrealistic demands placed on students during the test (in how many real-life scenarios will they be expected to spend this many hours working at their seats in utter silence with no access to reference materials or to bathroom breaks at will, using only Chromebooks to do their work?), nor the (eventual) use of test scores to evaluate teachers and schools.

    We are aware that Maryland does not have an “opt-out” option for families. We are not “opting out;" we are declining to participate. There is no penalty to our children or to our family for this in any set of laws or codes that we can find. We are not averse to reasonable testing, nor to assessment that is ongoing and will be used to remediate academic shortcomings in our children’s learning, nor to testing that assesses what children have learned and what they can do in realistic environments and settings, nor to testing that does not turn a school’s schedule upside-down for several weeks of the school year, nor to end-of-year testing that actually takes place at the end of the school year; PARCC does not meet any of these criteria in our opinion. Additionally, in a letter from Congress clarifying ESSA policy: "Hundreds of thousands of parents have chosen to keep their children from taking state-mandated tests, and these parents have every right to determine what is in their child's best interests." (full letter attached)

    Last year during PARCC testing,
Monkey sat in the classroom and read silently while her classmates tested. (Mrs. B. & Ms. G. can fill you in on how that was handled.) While we don't object to a repeat of this activity (in fact we credit the sustained silent reading with giving her the opportunity to get focused on a book and series, and her reading has been voracious ever since), we assert once again that it would be a far better use of everyone's time for her to either have enrichment activities to complete or to have her assist in a classroom; she loves working with other kids and she loves helping teachers.

    Please don't hesitate to contact us if you have any questions about our position on PARCC testing.

Mr. & Mrs. Crunchy

Friday, December 4, 2015

Guns and Fear

Anyone on Facebook these days is sure to have noticed changes in the tone of conversation about politics (no matter what country you live in) and more recently about gun control, given recent shootings. My own thoughts aren't that consequential, but I get tired of repeating them, so here, fueled by a too-short night of sleep (thanks, cat, for being hungry at 3AM, and body for failing to get back to sleep afterward :P), is what I just posted on yet another thread:
Wherever one stands on gun rights, I am wondering why there is so little focus from all of us - from individual citizens to the highest levels - on the mentality of people who would carry out such acts. Certainly some are truly mentally ill, but I also see a culture of fear and anger that fuels everything from shootings like this clear up to politics - The Donald, basically an overgrown warmongering schoolyard bully, is the frontrunner for POTUS, FFS! When people feel too afraid and too powerless for too long, this is the sort of thing we can expect from groups and from individuals.

Add to that the easy availability of guns, and it's a powderkeg, and nobody should be surprised when it goes off. I say this as someone who grew up with hunting guns in the house (and if I get to move back home, I plan to take Bambi from my veggie garden to my freezer and crockpot my damn self LOL) and who enjoys a good round of target shooting: I'd have no trouble with gun laws strict enough to require AT LEAST the stringency of licensing we have for cars, complete with training and regular recertification. I'd even be OK with limits to the kind/amount of ammo I could buy and the kind of weapons I could purchase. I'm a suburban mom, I don't need a fully automatic anything except a dishwasher.  

So what's stopping us from enacting sensible gun legislation? Fear. Fear of powerlessness - and in recent times, more and more people have less and less power.

IMO, it makes no sense to address one without addressing the other. When we're powerless, we fight, we hang on for dear life and fight tooth and nail for every scrap of power we can get, we think with our guts instead of our brains, we think that the schoolyard bully presidential candidate will fight for us and make it all better, we blame The Other - Muslims, immigrants, Liberals, Conservatives, the Wealthy, the Poor. We get stuck in the pattern, we pass it to our children, and nothing changes except that the cycle perpetuates and strengthens.

This goes way deeper than guns. Getting rid of guns would only be a band-aid over a much deeper wound. /rant

Friday, September 18, 2015

Why Parents Should OPT OUT of Common Core Testing - a response to Karen Quinn

Mercy, mercy, mercy - I made the mistake of clicking on this link to an informercial-trying-to-pass-for-article in the Washington Post on September 18th. The basic upshot of the article, written by one Karen Quinn, founder of TestingMom (actual motto: "Make your kid smarter today!"), "a Web site that helps pre-K to 8th graders ace important tests and build skills for school success," is that standardized testing is Good For Your Children and Informative For Parents.
In case you thought I was kidding about the motto...

She starts out by admitting that "Parents and students object to these tests for reasons that are arguably valid and true. They say that meaningless mandated tests are taking over our schools, too much time is being spent in the classroom preparing for tests just so the government can find out how well teachers and schools are performing, the tests are used to rank, sort, judge and label our kids, teachers and schools and that isn’t fair, and the Common Core standards and tests that assess them are too hard" - and then goes on to say we parents should embrace them anyway.

The 5 points Quinn lays out are as follows:

"1) Your child needs to learn how to take a standardized test. In a few years, your child may take the SAT or ACT, and his score will impact whether he gets into college.....It takes years for a child to learn how to be a good standardized test taker. Sitting for the Common Core test will help your child get better at the test-taking skills he needs to master if he is going to apply to college."

My comebacks:
1) Maybe. Not all colleges even require either the SAT or ACT any more.
2) Even if my child eventually does apply to a school that requires the SAT for admission, does she REALLY need to start learning these skills in 3rd grade? In KINDERGARTEN? Does she need to spend more time ANNUALLY testing than the SAT will take, even if she takes it TWICE? There are So. Many. OTHER. better and more constructive ways to both use the time and the money allotted to schools.

"2) You will learn important things about your child. If your child takes the test and does well, that’s great to know. If your child scores below expectations, you need to find out why."

PARCC was administered last year in my kids' schools. (My kids did not participate.) It is looking increasingly likely that scores will not come back to schools until AFTER DECEMBER of this year - at least a 7-month lag time! They'll be more than halfway through the next grade without those scores, and yet their teachers this year will somehow find a way to see where my kids are academically and go forward from there, just as they have year after year.

When the scores DO finally come back, I wouldn't be able to tell whether my mathematically-gifted child's scores truly reflect her ability to Math, her ability to Explain Your Answer in a test-acceptable format (verbal skills aren't her strong suit, and I already know that and don't need PARCC to tell me), her stamina (she's ADD and "checks out" after about 20 minutes, so a 75-minute testing segment is a lost cause), or whether the scores would be impacted one way or the other by a glitch in the computer or the test itself. Her teachers won't be able to tell whether, back in March and May of last school year, there might have been problems with computation, with reading problems, with fractions - the score won't give ANYONE enough usable "actionable" (I hate that word, but it applies here) information.

"3) Your child will feel good about herself. " (Followed by an anecdote of a girl who did tons of test prep and scored well and Had High Self Esteem as a result.)

Are you aware, Ms. Quinn, of how these tests are scored, of what happens to the results?  There's no passing grade set before the tests are given; nobody knows how many questions have to be answered "correctly," what score will constitute "Proficient." These delineations are calculated AFTER the tests are taken and scored. So far, about 70% of kids are being told they are Not Proficient, that they are in fact failures. Tell me how this makes a child "feel good about herself."

"4) There’s value in preparing for this test. Years ago, when my kids were little and time was taken in class to teach them how to take the state test, I felt it was a waste. With the new Common Core standards, I don’t feel that way. To get ready for this test, kids are learning how to cite evidence from primary or secondary sources to support their point of view and show why they believe their analysis in essays is correct. They are taught to lay out the reasoning behind their answers to math questions. These are important thinking and communication skills that will serve our kids for school and for life. They are not just skills that apply to taking a test."

My older child was in one of the last cohorts to make it through our school system ahead of Common Core rollout, while my younger was the second cohort to experience it from Kindergarten onward. My older child also learned to cite primary and secondary sources, and in fact to do many of the other things that Common Core demands of students. The difference is that in her case, she wasn't being asked to do many of these tasks before she was developmentally ready, nor was her Early Childhood (that's birth-8YO, not just preschool) time taken up with academics in lieu of social-emotional development/non-academic skills. She still got a good education without the Common Core tests; this reason is specious at best.

"5) What message do you want to send? Life is tough and it certainly isn’t fair. There are challenges ahead for your child and mine. What kind of message are we sending our kids if we let them opt out of things because they are too hard or (in our opinion) meaningless, unfair or a waste of time?"

The message I want to send to my kids is to not simply take a test that is sapping millions of dollars from their school system and countless hours of prep time from their schooling Just Because Someone Said So. I want them to think for themselves, to question, to take action to make the world a better place, to make their schools places of learning for the sake of learning again. I want to send them the message that their standing up, that OUR, as a family, standing up for something we believe in can make a difference, even if it's not a big one in our own community. Do you think they go through no adversity being the only ones in their classes sitting with books while their classmates are busy at their Chromebooks but sneaking looks at them? Do you think it takes zero courage to be the Different One? Nuh-uh.

We will be refusing the PARCC test in our Maryland school district again this year, NOT embracing it. I won't fault parents who do have their children test, but I urge all parents to do their homework before "opting in." The return on investment simply falls far too short: too much money and time taken from schools, unrealistic/too-high demands placed on too-young children, all for scores that don't come back in a timely fashion and give us too little information when they finally DO come back - ALL those "arguably valid and true" points she made above! - that's nothing worth embracing.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Opt-Out 2015 - Part the Second

Well, we knew it was bound to happen: the school is refusing our refusal. LOL

Hi Mr. and Mrs. Crunchy,

As with state-mandated tests, all students enrolled in Maryland Public Schools are required to be administered the PARCC assessment this year. Monkey will be taking the PARCC Mathematics and ELA assessments as is required of all students across the state in tested grades and subjects. Given that we are legally bound to administer the assessment to all of our students, we cannot accommodate your request for her to not take the assessment. Regarding Monkey's assessment last year, she is referring to a make-up session. Monkey was absent from the first session of her MSA test administration, and we assessed her during a make-up session as was required of us by the state of Maryland. This make-up process is the same used for any and all students who are absent during testing sessions, and this same process is in place for this year.

If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me.


Next step: Our refusal of their refusal of our refusal:

Dear Mr. Principal:

We are aware that M**** School intends to administer the PARCC test, that Monkey will be given the test. However, that does not mean that Monkey will actually take the test. That is the distinction.

This is not a request for M**** to not administer that test, or to opt out; it is simply to inform M**** that Monkey won't be taking the test. Short of someone putting her hands on the actual keyboard or trackpad, she cannot be forced to take the test - and non-testing students should not, according to the PARCC manual, be in the room with testing students. We are informing M**** of our family's intention and decision in advance so that appropriate arrangements can be made. We are happy to send work with her, or to suggest alternate activities, if that is helpful; we know the school will be busy during the testing windows.

As to the makeup session last year, she was in fact absent for the third morning session of the MSA, with makeups scheduled (according to a testing calendar I'd seen) not until the next week; if the makeup schedule had been changed due to the snow days last March, the courtesy of at least a phone call would have been appreciated, but - water under the bridge and all that.

Thank you for your understanding.

The Crunchies

From the PARCC manual:

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Opt Out 2015 - Part the First (And Hopefully the Last!)

And so it begins....The start of our 2015 Standardized Testing Refusal. If you've been following along long enough, you know that last year we refused the MSA (Maryland's predecessor to the PARCC, and that while our older child's middle school was able to work with us and ultimately honored our wishes, our younger child's elementary school did no such thing; the younger was given the test with her class and took 2 segments of it out of sheer boredom, and when we kept her home for the third morning out of four, they took her out of class that afternoon and tested her, alone except for a single staff member.

So without further ado, here's this year's letter to the same school. There's a different testing coordinator at the school this year, and a different administration in the school system, and this time we have access to some of the PARCC manual and procedures in advance, so it will be interesting to see how things play out this year. I've already had some folks ask on Facebook if they may use our wording as is or adapted; by all means, be our guest. :-)

Thursday, February 5, 2015

"Which Of These Standards Is Bad?"

I've gone on record as not being a fan of Common Core, particularly the K-3 standards. Bookworm, the elder, was 2 cohorts ahead of our school district's Common Core rollout, while Monkey was the second cohort to get the shiny new Common Core-aligned Curriculum 2.0. While my kids have very different personalities, I actually expected things to go more smoothly for my younger child, whose capacity for perseverance was pretty high going into school, and whose natural inclination toward math and science seemed a perfect fit for the STEM emphasis that accompanies current US Public education approaches.

Hah. Not so much. Beginning in second grade (mostly toward the end) and for almost ALL of last year, there were increasing tears, hostility, argumentative behavior even out of school, tears, increased fidgeting, even the appearance of a vocal tic, and have I mentioned the tears? This from a kid whose second-grade teacher told me that she remembered her for her smile. And as a frequent substitute in that school and another school (where I saw Kindergarteners weekly), I have seen more than my fair share of Kindergarteners acting out in ways and to degrees that I didn't see when I left (I thought temporarily) teaching 12 years previously. I've heard from parents that I'm hardly alone in my concerns for my kid's emotional well-being; I've heard teachers talking to each other before and after school and in the lunchroom and being frank with each other about their concerns that this is too much too soon; I've seen the unguarded shell-shocked halfway-to-burned-out faces of K-3 teachers who didn't know I noticed, who thought they were hiding it from their classes and school volunteers (I'm ADD; I notice EVERYTHING except what I'm supposed to. LOL).

The first question that most pro-Common Core cheerleaders tend to ask is, "Have you read the standards?" My answer is "Yes, I have, actually." They're tedious reading; I have only gotten up through middle school as that's where my elder is at the moment, and I'm not thrilled about the K-3 standards. (For anyone who wants to see how innocuous they look, separated out, in writing - which as anyone who has spent ANY time in a classroom knows is not the same things as "in practice" - here is a link to the Kindergarten standards.) The next usual big red flag question/demand is, "Show me which of these standards is not developmentally appropriate for Kindergarten," often phrased as "Which of these things can't a normal 5YO do?"