PARCC needs more than a name change

It’s been a four-year experiment that started failing before it ever began. PARCC tests have done little more than cause headaches and undue stress for parents, students and educators. Before the tests even entered classrooms, parents, students and educators resisted the notion that more testing would increase student achievement.

With the election of Gov. Phil Murphy, it’s clear: New Jersey is moving on from PARCC.

During his campaign, Gov. Murphy declared he would “end PARCC day one.” While the likelihood of bringing in a new statewide assessment system for New Jersey’s public schools in a few short months is unrealistic, the transition has already started. It’s equally unrealistic to expect that changing the name of the test and little else—as the New Jersey Department of Education did with the Common Core State Standards only two years ago—will help students.

PARCC’s problems run far deeper than its name. Its problems are structural, systemic and built into its philosophical underpinnings. As educators, we know tests don’t teach, and PARCC’s failure in New Jersey is a clear affirmation of this simple truth that we’ve always known.

PARCC’s power to interrupt learning is particularly notable.

PARCC tests disrupt learning for weeks at a time. They require unprecedented levels of test preparation after which they require children to prove their comprehension of complex skills on a computer, even if those children spend most of their class time using paper and pencils. At the high school level, weeks of instructional time are lost as groups of students are pulled from classes to take the tests, leaving teachers to slow down instruction for those left behind.

The tests are not developmentally appropriate for children. They never have been and they never will be because the tests are written by “test experts” who know more about test questions than teaching kids.

But the transition to a new test isn’t only about getting away from PARCC. It’s about returning respect to educators, parents and students. Transitioning away from PARCC means reclaiming schools.

Making matters worse, PARCC requires school districts to prioritize their resources toward technologies that facilitate testing rather than toward tools and practices that facilitate learning. Educators who work outside of tested areas, especially in the fine and performing arts, find their budgets slashed to purchase and update testing technology.

New Jersey’s public schools are consistently ranked among the best in the nation, but we’ve fallen behind when it comes to the most effective ways of assessing student learning. Our inability to lead on performance-driven, curriculum embedded standardized assessments is unacceptable. Only six states remain of the original 26 in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) consortium. Only five states will remain when New Jersey’s exit becomes official. That exit can’t come soon enough.

But the transition to a new test isn’t only about getting away from PARCC. It’s about returning respect to educators, parents and students. Transitioning away from PARCC means reclaiming schools.

PARCC has been the number one contributor to the toxic culture of achievement-at-all-costs brought on by the adoption of high-stakes standardized tests infecting our schools. Students can achieve academic excellence without their schools obsessing over test scores. Our school leaders have always known this, and it’s time they be permitted to act on it.

The state should scale back its obsession with data-driven assessment systems. New Jersey remains one of only 12 states that still requires a high school exit exam. Adding to the obsession, PARCC requires high school students take at least three standardized tests during high school. This doesn’t include tests such as the SAT, ACT, ASVAB, or AP tests.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) does not require students take standardized tests each year, but PARCC does. ESSA does not require students take standardized tests online, but PARCC does. The NJDOE has the room to scale back the role tests play in schools, and the time to do so is now.

The state must listen to the experts, the educators in the classroom, not the test writers in the cubicle farm.

The NJDOE new leadership has demonstrated its commitment to involve all stakeholders in the process to replace PARCC. Educators must be involved in the decision-making process. Parents must speak up for their young children who haven’t yet found the words to articulate their frustrations. Students must be loud and clear about tests that meet their needs.

In only four years, hundreds of thousands of students have opted-out or refused to take PARCC. The test’s removal from our schools means those actions have been heard, but it doesn’t mean our actions are done.