How Computerized PARCC Testing Will Widen the Achievement Gap

6551525739_6b13d4f526_o.jpgBy Nick McDaniels – There are many valid ways to criticize the PARCC test, Common Core, and the Pearson Education Dynasty.  Much of this criticism requires speculation, however.

Well, as we begin to really embark on a new regime of high stakes testing called PARCC, one thing is becoming abundantly clear.  Poorly funded school districts do not have the capacity to implement a computer-based test.  At schools in our poorest urban and rural districts, technology access, broadband capacity, and staff and student technological literacy are real issues that impact teaching and learning every day in a way that staff and students in affluent districts probably cannot even imagine in 2016.

Pearson, of course, wants PARCC testing to be computer-based because they get to maximize profits by cutting the expenses of printing and grading paper-based tests.  And as Pearson said it, so it was done.  Many school systems have begun the new era of high stakes testing, where students strain their eyes in front of computers for hours taking tests that can be graded almost as soon as a student clicks submit.

For districts with one-to-one technology access, high levels of staff and student computer literacy, and strong broadband connectivity, this is an easy, perhaps even welcomed, shift.  But alas, these districts, with their robust budgets, often boast high passage rates on standardized tests regardless of format.

The districts where test scores have been traditionally lowest are the districts that are seeing students sit in front of a computer, taking a very hard test, as servers crash, computers turn off and on without warning, and interactive parts of the test fail to work because of broadband problems.

What the computerized PARCC test has done is take standardized testing, made the test more challenging, and increased the barriers for success for students in areas that have traditionally seen the lowest test scores.  How did the PARCC do this?  They shifted the test from paper to silicon and shifted Pearson’s profits from outstanding to unfathomable.



To Test or Not to Test? That is the Question

5843577306_1a98149efb_o.jpgBy Bill Waychunas – “Because I said so.”  No words that a teacher (or parent) ever wants to utter. That’s how I felt as I pathetically begged my 9th graders to do their best on a recent PARCC test, which is the newer, more rigorous, common core version of standardized state assessments.

My stomach turns thinking about the questions they asked and the half-baked responses I gave as I tried to give them a quick pep talk before settling in for testing.

“Does this count for a grade?” – No, but…

“When will we get our scores back?” – Probably not until next school year…

“What happens if we just go to sleep during the test?” – Nothing really except that I’ll wake you up…

“So, why does this test even matter?” …because I said so?

Inspiring, right?

Generally speaking, I believe in testing and assessment as a way of verifying student understanding and for teacher and school-wide reflection on their effectiveness. After all, every teacher assesses students in some way; informal and formal assessments happen every day in class as students volunteer correct or incorrect answers, complete homework assignments, or do ANY assignment. Show me a teacher who doesn’t assess or test their students in some way, and I’ll show you an ineffective teacher who likely has no end goals for their course or who rambles aimlessly through content assuming that “if I said it, then they learned it.”

Tests are not inherently bad. But, they can certainly be used in a way that is hurtful to our education system. The PARCC and Smarter Balance tests will provide information and insights into teaching and learning that were previously unavailable. Never before have we been able to compare the schools in different states, districts, and cities in such a widespread and consistent manner. The potential to make more informed policy decisions to improve our education system based on such assessments is enormous. But, by not testing smart, we risk wasting everyone’s time in the process.

Here are some questions that schools, district, and state policy-makers should be asking so we can become smarter about standardized testing in our classrooms:

  1. Will this test be useful? If the test doesn’t tell the teacher, student, parent, or school anything that they can use to take action on behalf of a student, then it is probably a waste of time. Tests should show us what students know, as well as where they are struggling so that we can make plans to remediate misconceptions, target instruction towards skills that haven’t been mastered, and push students to new more difficult levels when they’re ready. We cannot keep giving tests just for the sake of giving tests; there should always be a good reason to give them.
  2. When will we get the results? If it takes months, or even weeks, to get the results back from an assessment, then it’s generally too late to do anything with them, making them generally useless to a classroom teacher or parent.
  3. Does this test really matter? I’m not arguing for high-stakes testing, but tests should count for something. There are other ways to make tests matter than giving them a grade or threatening a student with repeating a grade level if they don’t reach a certain cut-score. If no one at the school particularly cares about the results of the test, then we should really be asking ourselves why we are taking the test in the first place.
  4. How much time are we spending on testing? A high-quality and thorough test takes time, but that doesn’t mean that we should be testing all the time. Some schools and districts spend so much time on testing, that they seriously curtail the amount of time spent actually teaching. Lots of people like to blame this on federal or state testing requirements, but the reality is that, in most cases, we are doing this to ourselves through district or school-level decisions. I’m not sure that I have an exact percentage of time that should be spent on testing, but the “law of diminishing returns” is at play here. By only using tests that are actually valuable to instruction, we can avoid hitting the avoidable point of assessment and data overload.

This is by no means a comprehensive, fool-proof formula for solving all of the woes related to standardized testing, but by taking some time to make more thoughtful decisions about what, how often, and why we test, we can perhaps find a fair middle-ground between assessment and instruction. For my sake, I hope that we can find this middle ground soon so that I never again have to utter the words “because I said so” as the empty and hollow reason for taking a test.

Love for Academia: A Major Problem

hands-1080792_960_720.pngBy Noel Hincha – I enrolled at Marquette as a pre-physical therapy, exercise physiology major. Then upon preview, I switched to be a biomedical science major. Then in August, I changed to the biology major. Then, once orientation started, I became an unofficial English major. Then, as days flew by, I finally turned into an anthropology major. I traded in my chemistry textbook for a sociology one, and my biology textbook for a French one.

To put it succinctly, I don’t know what I’m doing; let’s be real and strip away all the formalities. It’s been a year, and I’m still standing in a fog at the beginning of an unbeaten path filled with the thorns and perils of being “multi-interested.” I fled from the hard sciences – if you love her, let her go – to be met by Shakespeare, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Neanderthals. Frankly, I love them as much as I loved learning about human pathology and walking through cadaver labs. I think truly being multi-interested is a problem.

I take interest in almost every subject. I wanted philosophy, biology, speech-language pathology, architecture, history, English, journalism, anthropology, physics, education, law, marketing; so, I spent a year dillydallying around core courses and electives. I joked to my friend, “I might as well get a Ph.D. in every field, never get an actual job, and then pass on the debt to my children.” It’s an internal catastrophe to love academia.

Maybe, I can label myself as merely another delusional and indecisive millennial addicted to travel and social media uprisings; however, for the sake of adhering to social norms and following a field that encompasses as many passions as possible, I’m an anthropology major. I suppose all the rambling above could be more concise: It’s okay to be undecided. It’s okay to take time and truly discover one’s successes and challenges. It’s okay.


When One Door Closes…

2972235208_f249b6a3c4_b.jpgBy Amanda Szramiak – On my last blog, I talked about my rejection from Teach for America. This week I have some more positive news to share.

I was offered to teach summer school with the Center for Urban Teaching, and I am so immensely excited. Though I am not sure what school or grade I will teach, I will be teaching! It is so exciting to finally be able to say I am going to be teaching for longer than a period or two. Others may be frightened by the 7a.m. to 5p.m. time commitment for six weeks, but I am truly overjoyed with the opportunity. I have been reaching out to some of my friends and colleagues who have been affiliated with CfUT, so if you are, please don’t hesitate to give me advice.

The Center for Urban Teaching’s main purpose is to “identify, prepare, and support high performing urban teachers.” Their values of being spiritually focused, respectful, courageous, perseverant, and dedicated coincide with my beliefs on what it takes to be a powerful teacher. I think having an organization instill these values in their teachers helps to ensure that the teachers will also inspire their students. Not only does CfUT want to enhance student achievement, but they also want to aid and support urban teachers to become high performing.

I think this experience coupled with my field experiences will give me all the valuable tools needed in order for me to be considered successful in my future classroom.

In Memory of “The Patron Saint of Awkward Teenagers”

sunset-1060710_960_720.jpgBy Sabrina Bartels – On Easter, I found out that my beloved Debate and Forensics coach, Sharon Sharko, unexpectedly passed away. As the news quickly circulated around Facebook, her friends, colleagues, and former students all began sharing their favorite memories. I couldn’t shake the idea of blogging about a teacher who had such an influence on my high school career, so if it is okay with readers here, I’m going to dedicate this blog post to Sharko.

We never called her Ms. Sharko. Okay, maybe I did the very first time I met her, but stopped after that. She was always just “Sharko.” It took away the formality that usually exists between teachers and students. That lack of formality led to Sharko creating close relationships with all of her students. We were able to walk into her office at any time, before, during, or after school, and we would be greeted with a smile and a witty comment.  She would offer all kinds of advice for us as well, from what college would be best, to how to ask someone to prom. She was a wealth of knowledge on so many different things.

She also had a knack for knowing people. When I first joined her debate team, Sharko decided to pair me up with a quiet girl named Linsey. Linsey and I were debate partners for only a year, but we still talk to this day. In fact, she was a bridesmaid at my wedding. The next year, Sharko paired me up with a boy named Ken, who knew more about politics and government than I ever cared to learn. Somehow, our personalities meshed and we really clicked as debate partners. These two people that I believed had nothing in common with me have ended up being my lifelong friends. I am forever thankful to have them in my life. In fact, a lot of my core group of friends from high school were from the Debate and Forensics Team!

Sharko’s knowledge of who I was (even when I maybe didn’t know) extended to my forensics career. She placed me in a category called “Public Address,” which involves a speaker writing a speech around a controversial issue. Under Sharko’s guidance, I began to blossom as a public speaker. I learned how to use hand gestures and subtle movements to emphasize my points. I learned how to project and how to inflect emotion in my voice. A category that I had started out hating soon became my passion. I would go on to be conference champion my sophomore and senior years, and take home two silvers and a gold in state competitions.

One of my favorite memories with Sharko revolved around the first forensics meet of my senior year. I had been procrastinating (as usual) with writing my speech. The day before the meet, Sharko had asked if I wanted to practice my speech. I had to admit that I hadn’t written it yet. I remember she rolled her eyes at me (she was used to me waiting until the last minute for everything; she had, after all, had me in her AP Politics class and witnessed me crank out five-page papers two hours before class.). “Make sure you have one tomorrow,” she reminded me as I left for the day.

I went home, watched some TV, listened to music, finished my homework, and around midnight, decided it was a good time to start my speech. I wrote an 8-minute speech in an hour and practiced it twice. Okay, to be honest, I read it once to my mom that night, and once to my dad in the car as we drove to the meet.

I made it through my three rounds and then found out that I was able to go to the power round. A power round is when judges take the top five or so speakers and have them compete head-to-head. I remember Sharko wasn’t fazed in the slightest when she found out I was in the power round. She told me she had every faith in me that I would make it to that final round.

Once the power round was over, we all filed into the auditorium to get the final results. The emcee had the speakers from each category come to the stage and receive their awards. “Public Address” was called up, and I walked to the front with all of my fellow speakers. They announced the fifth place speaker, it wasn’t me. Fourth place, it wasn’t me. I remember Sharko was beaming at me for being in the top three. And then they announced third place, and it wasn’t me. That’s when Sharko and I exchanged looks of shock. At the end of the meet, as I clung to my second-place trophy, Sharko hugged me and said, “Imagine if you had written your speech a week before!” She then said she was proud of me, and that I represented our school well.

As I got older, my relationship with Sharko evolved from student-teacher to colleagues. When I decided to become a school counselor, she sent me the following message: “I think that your sense of what to say and do is going to be so helpful for kids at any age and I am very proud of your accomplishments. Counseling isn’t the easiest career, but as I said, you will be excellent.” We would talk about Forensics and the struggles educators are facing today. My last message from Sharko said, “I know teachers shouldn’t have favorites, but you were one of mine. And when you think about it, being a teacher is kind of like being a sculptor, you have to have good material to generate a work of art. And, you Sabrina, were really, really good material. Hope to talk to you soon!”

But my last memory of Sharko isn’t even my memory. It’s my husband’s.

Just last year, he and Sharko had jury duty together. The two had lunch together and reminisced about high school and Sharko’s career at Greendale. According to Rob, Sharko had talked about what a great counselor she imagined I was. I was so flattered that she told my husband this. I remember telling Rob that I should Facebook Sharko and ask her to have coffee with me, but work and life got busy. I never got around to it.

Sharon Sharko helped make me the person I am today. At her memorial, someone said that Sharko was the “patron saint of awkward teenagers.” And it’s true. When I was a shy, unsure, timid teenager, Sharko took me under her wing and helped me discover a confidence in my speaking abilities. She helped me foster a love of helping people and standing up for what I believe in. That’s what she always did. She loved and accepted every student that walked through her door, regardless of age, confidence, and beauty. She took you and made you a better person. A better speaker. A better advocate. She was always there for her students, both when we were in school and out in the real world, guiding us, supporting us unconditionally, and helping us become the wonderful, expressive adults we all are today.

Preparing for Finals: Thinking About How You Can Increase Memory Retention

books-927394_960_720.jpgBy Nick Rocha – It is that time of year already!  The stiff backs, the all-nighters, the delivered pizza to your apartment.

Finals are usually a hassle and a stressful time for many students.  Making sure to keep your mind, your spirit, and your physical self in check is crucial for doing well on your exams and here are some tips that you can adopt during your exam week to help with memory retention and stress.

  1. Do not cram your studying! Make sure that you are not waiting until the last minute to prepare for your exams. Prioritize your classes, gauge which exams might be more difficult than others, and make sure that you give yourself mental breaks every hour or so.  Breaks in your studying sessions helps with the “absorption” of the material and allows you to come back to studying with a fresh mind.
  2. Change up your study location! Staying in the library all the time to study may be suitable because it is quiet, but make sure that you are not becoming drained from your environment. Changing up your study location makes you move around, which increases blood flow and reduces fatigue.  Just make sure to find another place that is also quiet or suitable for you to study.
  3. Reduce the distractions! If you need to, change your Facebook password and give it to a trusted friend for exam week.  Listening to music, watching television, texting or using the phone while you are studying might impact your memory retention of the material; classmates can be a good resource for studying as long as they continue to talk about the study materials.
  4. Engage in some light cardio activity during exam week! Studies have explored the connection between a moderate cardio activity and memory retention; make sure that you set time of your busy studying schedule for a 20 minute walk or jog. Exercise has some tremendous benefits for your body and mind and it can also “unlock” some of the stress muscles experience during exam week.
  5. Eat right! Having pizza every single night because of exam week may not be the best approach. Make sure that you include a heavy dose of fruits and vegetables into your diet at least a week prior to exam week.  Having the proper vitamins and nutrients helps with memory retention, and avoiding sugary drinks will prevent crashes that might impact exam performance.

Exam week is a stressful time for many students, but think about how far you have come and think about the feeling of accomplishment when you are finished.  In order to do the best on those exams, it is important that you are in your best state; keep organized, keep calm, and know that all that stress is temporary.  Hopefully some of these tips will be helpful, and I wish you the best on your upcoming exams!

Our Schools are Underfunded Because Our Cities are Voluntarily Impoverished

download (50).jpgBy Nick McDaniels – Teachers and teacher salaries are often the scapegoat for school systems not having any money.  To be sure, staff salaries and benefits are a major expense in big urban school districts. And big urban school districts struggle with funding because the cities in which they are situated struggle to generate revenue for schools, which are often based on property taxes.  When teachers want a raise, more resources, or better working conditions, school systems and their defenders can cry poverty and blame the teachers for trying to break an already broke system.  How convenient!

The story that is not told is that many of our cities, which could be giving more money to their school districts to provide better wages, more resources, and better working conditions, squander millions and millions of dollars in annual tax revenue every year to tax breaks for developers.  These developers, armed with the promises of jobs and redevelopment and dreams of conquering America’s urban frontier, enjoy years and years of tax-incentives, but often never deliver on the promises of jobs but rather on the hidden promise of gentrification. In the meantime, schools that could have used the revenue continue to struggle.

It’s hard to blame the developers for taking the hand out.  But, in my mind, it’s even harder to blame the teachers, many of whom do pay property taxes in the jurisdictions where they teach (as I do), for asking for increase wages, more resources, and better working conditions.  So who do we blame?

The corrupt city officials continue to underfund schools so as to provide financial incentives to the developers who donated heavily to their campaigns.  Voluntary impoverishment is never an adequate defense for not paying the bills.  So why do we continue to let cities who do not appropriately fund schools defend themselves; or worse, why do we defend them for passing the blame?

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