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.

Teachers and ARCs

*This is a revised and updated version of a post I published on the blog back in 2011.  

I feel like I walk a fine line as a blogger sometimes. First and foremost, I am a bibliophile.  But I am also a high school English teacher, a lover of technology, and a book reviewer.  Because I review books that I receive from publishers and at conferences, I am fortunate to receive ARCs, or advance review copies, sometimes.  This means I get to read and review some books before they are published.

ARCs and review copies I picked up at NCTE this past November. All ARCs went to my classroom library.

I teach at a fabulous high school that shares a campus with the local community college.  We do not have a school library, but the students have access to the campus library at all times.  This means they can access databases, journals, and other periodicals that most high schools can’t afford.  But it also means that they do not have a library geared towards high schoolers.  There is no YA section, no popular fiction section, no best-sellers shelf.  Thus, my classroom library is utilized by many students in my school of almost 300.

All over the country, education budgets are being slashed, teachers are having their pay cut, and school librarians are being RIFed.  Classroom libraries, which are almost always to be teacher-funded (out of teachers’ own pockets), are certainly suffering.  However, research shows that classroom libraries are vital – they encourage students to read more!  We need to do everything we can to encourage students to become lifelong readers.  But it takes a village to raise a reader.

According to research, school libraries should provide at least 13 books per student. That means I need 3900 books for my students!  Those books should be age-appropriate, showcase a variety of genres, support the curriculum, and reflect student interests. I am going to be honest here- I can not afford to purchase the dozens of books my students need every year.  I pay for all of the books in my classroom library, just like most teachers.  In my case, I am very lucky because I do receive review copies and ARCs, from publishers and at conferences like NCTE.  For other teachers, this means ordering from Scholastic, visiting warehouse sales, soliciting donations from students/parents, and looking longingly at those new titles in the bookstore but knowing it’s impossible to buy them all.

As a blogger/reviewer, I know I am extremely lucky.  I have access to review copies and ARCs, which are all placed in my classroom library.  Publishers value the “buzz” that is generated by these early copies and my students love that they get a chance to read books before they are officially published.  I start the year by explaining what ARCs are and showing the students some unfinished copies.  My sixth-graders and my high schoolers both understood that ARCs are not finished works and may differ from the final draft.  But ARCs work wonders with readers.

ARCs are magical.  Nothing hooks a reluctant reader like the promise of reading a story before the rest of the world has access to it.  That, plus the knowledge that they can share their thoughts on Goodreads is the best motivator I have!  I utilize ARCs almost daily in my classroom.  At the beginning of the school year, I explain ARCs to my students.  We analyze a few older copies (whatever hasn’t fallen apart from the year before) and note the differences between ARCs and finished copies.  This ensures that the students are aware that ARCs are not final copies and may have errors in them, lack illustrations, and so on.  The students are usually fascinated by this because they have not had access to ARCs in the past or never knew they existed.

I show the students our ARCs shelf and explain how it will be updated whenever I get new ARCs.  I tell the students that they are free to borrow ARCs at any time, but there is one requirement: they must share their ARC experience after reading it.  This can mean writing a review on Goodreads, passing the recommendation on to a friend, or ordering a finished copy of their own.  Whenever I get a new ARC, I try to booktalk it before placing it in the library.  As soon as I mention “ARC”, students wake up and pay attention.

ARCs help me decide how to develop my classroom library collection, too.  If an ARC catches fire and is passed from student to student, falling apart as it moves through the class, I know I need to order a few finished copies.  This happened with The Hunger Games when I taught 6th grade. My single ARC was in tatters before the finished copies were published, long before most people knew who Katniss, Gale, and Peeta were.  I knew I would need more than one copy on my bookshelf because the ARC was so popular.  Needless to say, I was right.  More recently, my ARC of Matthew Quick’s Boy21  became popular with many of my students and I made sure to purchase a finished copy for the classroom library. If an ARC has a small, but dedicated, fanbase, I make sure I put a single copy in the classroom. If an ARC has a rabid following, then I will try to find more than one copy. ARCs usually last a season or two in my classroom before falling apart, so it is imperative that I replace the most popular and well-loved ARCs with finished copies!

Unfortunately, many teachers don’t have access to ARCs because they don’t blog, can’t afford to attend conferences, and aren’t aware of local publisher previews.  That is why I started #ARCsFloatOn.  ARCs can not be cataloged in libraries (public or school) because they are not finished copies.  They also can not be sold.  Thus, many reviewers end up throwing ARCs away after they read them, often long before the finished copies are produced.  There are thousands of teachers across the country who are dying to give those ARCs a second chance.  They put them in classroom libraries, give them to student groups, and use them to make collection development decision.

#ARCsFloatOn encourages reviewers to recycle those ARCs and get them into the hands of kids and teens!

ARCs Float On is a grassroots effort by  me, a Reach A Reader Advisory Board member.  The program aims to get ARCs into classroom libraries by matching willing donors with needy teachers.

HOW TO PARTICIPATE: Teachers interested in being contacted by donors may register here. Your information will be vetted and added to our searchable database. Reviewers with books to donate may search the database for schools. Donors are then responsible for contacting teachers with a list of the books they have available, and to arrange for shipping or dropoff of the books–it’s up to both parties how to “float” the ARCs. Donors are responsible for all arrangements and shipping costs. We just provide you with the means to connect.

I’ve shipped many middle grade and elementary ARCs to other teachers, using Priority Mail flat rate boxes.  For approximately $11 I can ship 15-20 books to another teacher.  Most of the time, the teachers are willing to pay shipping costs, which makes it even easier for the donors.

If you are interested in donating books, you may check our database at the #ARCsFloatOn website.

By donating the books that you receive for free, you are promoting awareness of great books and authors, helping teachers and librarians, and encouraging more reading. You can learn even more about this initiative through the Twitter hashtag, #ARCsFloatOn.

I can’t imagine not having the opportunity to share ARCs with my students.  Like a librarian or bookseller, I am constantly handselling books to my students.  A highly coveted ARC can turn into 10-20 book sales within my school.  But more importantly, at least to me, an ARC can turn  a dormant reader into a voracious reader.  Having the opportunity to read a story and share an opinion before the general public can attract dormant readers to my classroom library.  And reading one book can lead to reading another.  It can lead to a student finding a favorite author or a genre they enjoy.  And that means we all win.  This is why e-ARCs don’t work for me.  I need paper copies because e-ARCs expire and can not be shared with my students.  I would hate to see paper ARCs eliminated.  Instead, I want to see paper ARCs getting a second and third chance at life in classroom libraries!

*#ARCsFloatOn is endorsed by many of the major publishers!  They are happy to see ARCs getting into the hands of students. :)  ARCs can not be cataloged in a library, but classroom libraries are a-ok.  The ARCs don’t last long (a season or so) and most teachers then end up purchasing a hardcover copy.  Again, a win-win for publishers and students alike.

Other posts I have written about using ARCs in the classroom:

#ARCsFloatOn- How Bloggers Can Help

ARCs and Authors, Bloggers and Blogs! My Oh My!