My PARCC Hearing Testimony

It’s 11pm and I just walked in the door. After a full day of work I left my house again at 5pm so that I could arrive at a high school about 25 minutes away in time to sign in and get settled. I left that high school close to 10pm. What was I doing? I was testifying in front of the Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in New Jersey. This is the commission that will make recommendations regarding PARCC as we move forward.

Tonight close to 200 parents and educators showed up at the hearing. More than 60 of us were on deck to testify. And I have to give credit where credit is due- Commissioner Hespe and the members of the commission sat through all of the testimony. In all that time, there was one person who spoke in support of PARCC. Teachers got up to speak about lost instructional time, parents pointed out that they trust teachers to assess students, and a high school student shared his perspective.

I spoke almost three hours into the hearing. My testimony is below. I hope that the commission takes a step back to absorb what they heard tonight before making their recommendation to the governor.

My name is Sarah Gross. I am one of 265 National Board Certified teachers in the state of NJ, the 2014 NJ Council of Teachers of English Teacher of the Year, and a National Council of Teachers of English Secondary Teacher of Excellence. I am a published author and a contributor to The New York Times Learning Network who currently teaches high school and previously taught middle school. I’m here today because as a professional and a taxpayer in the state I am severely disappointed by the state’s decisions regarding PARCC testing.

After yesterday’s testimony in Jersey City, Commissioner Hespe said, “What is missing from this conversation and what I have asked from testifiers to address is what would they do to this societal problem where half of the students are graduating without the skills and knowledge they need.”

First, this is a false narrative. NJ’s schools are consistently ranked as some of the best in the country and the world. The statistic Mr. Hespe cited, that up to 40% of students are not prepared to deal with postsecondary education and work, is from a survey of 2200 adults sponsored by Achieve, an organization that supports PARCC. The survey did not include any elementary or secondary teachers or parents. It was given to high school graduates, almost 50% of whom were not currently registered at a two or four-year college when surveyed, and also included first-year instructors at two and four-year colleges.

The full study report from Achieve begins by saying, “Although public high schools are doing a good job preparing many graduates, they are seriously failing a substantial minority”. If that is the case, why are all students in grades 3-11 being forced to take the PARCC exam; why are they forced to be guinea pigs for a major corporation that can’t even tell parents and teachers the passing score? My own high school students frequently conduct research studies and there are strict guidelines that govern the use of human subjects in experiments. PARCC is nothing more than a corporate experiment and oversight is nonexistent. Our students are living, breathing human beings who deserve more respect.

Or perhaps Commissioner Hespe was referring to a second study, led by researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Arizona. This 2011 study found that two-fifths of high school students were prepared neither for traditional college nor for career training. But if this is the study the state is using, they must not have read it thoroughly. The researchers determined that standardized testing is not the answer and instead high schools should focus on high standards in academics and career track paths, also known as career and technical education. They suggested that high schools offer more career and technical education to all students, something we are only seeing in certain schools in our state.

While New Jersey is lucky to have wonderful schools and teachers we all acknowledge that there are problems in some districts. Many of the problems can be traced back to inequality and poverty. Standardized tests won’t help a student who doesn’t have enough food in their house. Standardized tests won’t result in vibrant classrooms where students read and write everyday, which results in deeper learning. Standardized tests won’t fix buildings that are falling apart and schools that are unsafe.

Commissioner Hespe lamented that those at last night’s public testimony did not offer solutions to the problems he sees in our schools. Well, Commissioner, I have plenty of suggestions. My first is to sit down with teachers. Not teachers that are hand-picked by political groups or lobbyists. Come to our schools, visit our classrooms, sit in on a faculty meeting. Meet with those of us who are in the trenches day in and day out. Talk to us about what is working and what is not working. Teachers want to be heard and we have a lot of great ideas.

Our state has signed a $108 million contract with Pearson to administer PARCC over the next few years. This does not include the funds spent on technology upgrades necessary for the standardized tests. I promise you that teachers can provide you with ideas for better ways to spend that money; ways that are proven by research to improve student outcomes.

A May 26, 2011, National Research Council report found no evidence that test-based incentive programs, such as standardized tests, are working. According to the study, “Despite using them for several decades, policymakers and educators do not yet know how to use test-based incentives to consistently generate positive effects on achievement and to improve education.” Again I ask you, why do we continue to allow the students of NJ to be test subjects for corporations like Pearson?

In contrast, a 2013 study by the University of Arkansas shows that culturally-focused field trips field improvements in students’ knowledge of and ability to think critically, display empathy, and develop tolerance. The study, which included surveying 10,912 students and 489 teachers at 123 different schools, concluded that school field trips to cultural institutions have significant benefits, specifically for students from less-advantaged backgrounds. Students from high-poverty schools experienced an 18 percent effect-size improvement in their critical thinking skills. What would our schools be like if instead of spending the month of March taking PARCC students visited the Museum of Modern Art, the planetarium, or the NJ State Museum?

And it’s not just field trips that improve critical thinking and promote deeper learning. Our schools need classroom and school libraries, which are vastly underfunded. Research shows that school and classroom libraries improve literacy and help create lifelong readers. There should be 15-20 books per child in classroom and school libraries. In most schools, classroom libraries are funded solely by teachers. Those classroom libraries promote real, authentic reading experiences across genres for students, unlike standardized tests. And school libraries? Take a look around the state to see how many schools have underfunded or non-existent school libraries since the dawn of No Child Left Behind. According to a 2011 study done by the NJ Association of School Librarians, a well-funded school library program is “a cost effective and essential means to prepare students to become reflective learners who are capable of locating, evaluating, and creating knowledge from information found in a variety of formats.” As a teacher, that’s what I want for my students. I want them to think critically, reflect on their learning, and create rather than consume- skills that come from great lessons and not standardized tests.

My last suggestion is that the state of NJ advocate for more and better professional development for teachers. Right now, teachers are being pulled out of the classroom to learn how to administer the PARCC exam. This is a waste of valuable instructional time. I mentioned at the beginning of my testimony that I am a National Board Certified teacher. For those who are not familiar with it, National Board Certification is a voluntary program that “strengthens practice, helps students succeed, demonstrates leadership skills, and advances careers”. Research shows that National Board Certification has a positive impact on student achievement. According to the DOE there are 117,803 full-time teachers in the state of NJ. Only 265 are National Board Certified. Maryland, a state that is often ranked near NJ on the “best of” school lists, is home to 2,760 National Board Certified teachers. They also offer compensation to teachers who achieve certification. This is the type of professional development NJ should be promoting, not PARCC training.

Commissioner Hespe, those are just a few of the suggestions you would hear from teachers if you took the time to meet with us. According to an article in today’s Wall Street Journal The state Department of Education says the PARCC exams will take about 10 hours of a 1,200-hour school year. I promise you this is not the case. Speak to teachers, learn about the hours and hours of test prep that is being forced on them and then forced on students. Learn about the class time that must be used for infrastructure testing. Learn about the time spent studying a rubric that is not aligned to what students are being asked to do. Learn about the computer labs and laptop carts that are out of commission for the duration of testing, so that non-testing students do not have access to them for weeks at a time. Learn about the days that will be lost to test prep, the life-changing lessons that have been left behind because we need to practice for PARCC. I’m sorry, but “10 hours” is more than a misnomer- it’s a lie.

As a teacher, I feel confident that I am speaking for my colleagues when I tell you that we are not afraid of change, not afraid of pushing our students to think deeper, not afraid of the future. But we are afraid of the future these tests are creating. Thank you.

Is It the Teacher or the System?

No doubt you have seen this week’s viral video of high school student Jeff Bliss demanding an end to what he calls “packet teaching.”  I don’t disagree with Mr. Bliss’ sentiment and I sincerely hope he does create change.  I hope people continue to talk about education and what students deserve long after the furor has died down. But I do have a problem with how the media has attacked the teacher seen in the video.

Do we blame the teacher or the system? That’s the question we need to focus on.

The media and most comments on news websites are attacking the teacher for being a paper-pusher, an awful teacher, and much worse.  The vitriol is cruel and beyond the pale. But how do we know this specific teacher made the packets that she handed out?  How do we know she had a choice in the matter? We don’t, and that’s a problem.  I refuse to crucify a singular person for what may be a much larger problem over which she has no control.

Right now we have Jeff Bliss’ side of the story, and a 90-second long clip of his speech during class.  We do not have information from the teacher and if she expects to continue teaching in any capacity I imagine we will never hear from her.  However, a little digging will show that she has a social media presence devoted to her classes. (I won’t link to her here because I don’t want to contribute to her name being brought up any more, as the district is not using it in their statements).

She has a Pinterest page devoted to resources students can use, a Youtube page linking to Crash Course videos and other content for her classes, a Twitter account, and a few other history-based resources where she interacts with students.  Obviously, this does not mean she is a wonderful teacher, but it does seem to me  that she is passionate about her job.  Those social media sites are most likely culled together outside of school hours as most schools block them, so she is devoting time outside of the 9-3 of classes to her profession.  It seems to show dedication to her students and passion about the subject matter she teaches.  And I have a hard time juxtaposing that with the comments I am reading on websites decrying her as the world’s worst teacher, a lazy idiot, and a detriment to society. Again, there’s nothing about a social media presence that guarantees she is a vibrant, engaging teacher. But it does give me pause. If she is a terrible teacher who does nothing but pass out packets, why has the district not addressed that prior to this situation? Does she have positive evaluations? Has she been encouraged and mentored? What is the truth about this situation?

I’ve read too many comments on news websites that say something along the lines of,  “Come on, this is all on the teacher.  It’s not like there are principals out there saying, here, hey you have to devote all of your class time to test prep.  You are required to assemble some packets of prep, pass them out, and have students complete them before the standardized tests.”

I have news for those commenters.  There are many, many districts like that.  Too many.  I have friends who are amazing teachers and are now being handed a packaged curriculum, complete with a script, that they must follow.  They are being forced to skip teaching science and history and instead must hand out test prep packets for math and ELA tests that will decide whether they are “good” or “bad” teachers.  They must administer practice tests in their classes instead of doing PBL or science experiments.  One friend, currently teaching elementary school, just told me that after our state tests next week her school will finally let her teach science and social studies.  Pretty much an entire year’s worth of curriculum in one month.  And this is in a good district, a district that people move into because it is highly-ranked!

They aren’t an anomaly.  Sadly, in our standardized-test obsessed culture they are becoming the norm.  And that is a huge problem.  It’s not the students’ responsibility to fight this and I don’t blame Jeff Bliss for standing up to the person in front of him, the teacher he deals with daily.  But the reaction from the public needs to go way beyond that one teacher.  Where is the investigation into the district as a whole?  Where are the interviews with students talking about the test prep they are forced to do in all classes?  Where are the interviews with parents in other states explaining how their children no longer take music or art classes but instead they take test prep classes in their place?  Where are the interviews with administrators explaining how their schools are  considered failing or no good because the difference between their special ed population and gifted student population scores is too large and now they must force packaged curriculum on their teachers and students in order to satisfy the state or federal government?

“But why don’t they fight back? A good teacher would stand up and refuse to teach like that!” commenters say.  But they do fight back. It’s not just in a way that gets them fired and I can’t begrudge them that.  They fight back by attending meetings, bringing research to their supervisors, talking to parents about getting involved, sharing books and other unpackaged curriculum with students.  They put themselves in the line of fire as much as possible without getting fired.  Are we really asking teachers to get fired in order to prove they are good teachers? Can’t you fight from the inside? Don’t you want those teachers in front of your classroom while they wage a silent war outside the classroom walls? Or would you prefer they get fired? Is that the answer?

That’s the problem. And that’s what I wish we were talking about thanks to Jeff Bliss.  And I’m pretty sure it’s what Jeff Bliss wants us to talk about. Because that’s how we will begin to change things.  Not by focusing on a single situation in a single classroom but instead, focusing on the results of NCLB and the standardized tests being forced on our students and teachers.  By 2015, our students will all be taking the PARCC tests and teachers’ jobs will depend on the results. In NJ, PARCC third-grade assessments will have nine sessions with an estimated eight hours of testing compared to NJ ASK’s five hours and four days. The PARCC assessments in other grades will run approximately nine and half hours compared to about six for NJ ASK. That’s a lot of lost teaching time in just a few grades in one state.  It’s even worse in other places.  The numbers get worse when you add in test prep classes that districts require students to take and the time taken from other content areas in order to prepare students.

So yes, Jeff Bliss has every right to confront his teacher and demand a better education.  But the adults reading the articles, writing editorials, and speaking on 24-hour news channels about the situation have a responsibility to dig even deeper.  One teacher in one school is not the problem.  Administrators and districts who demand “packet teaching” are the problem. And that’s what we need to be talking about.  We need to put the spotlight on the decision-makers who choose the curriculum teachers are told to teach with. We need to demand that politicians stand up for our students instead of making money for Pearson and other testing companies.  I am grateful to Jeff Bliss for showing the world what testing culture has done to many of our schools. I just hope that parents and taxpayers start to see beyond that classroom and look at the bigger picture.  Because I don’t think Jeff Bliss is speaking about one situation in one class.  He wants to change the paradigm and we all have to stand up in order for that to happen.