School District 65 Superintendent Paul Goren sent the following letter dated March 9 to Chris Koch, Superintendent of the Illinois State Board of Education, concerning the PARCC assessment:
Dear Dr. Koch:
As we start the testing window, I write to offer issues and concerns raised by members of my community with regard to the PARCC test. Over the past two weeks I have held several community forums to inform family members and citizens about the assessment, how it is linked to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and why District 65 remains committed to giving the test. In these sessions I have stressed the importance of having a set of rigorous content standards coupled with an aligned assessment system. Such a system helps families gauge how well their children are performing and provides educators with data to inform instruction.
I also noted that the tests are required, as were the ISATs, as part of the accountability program of the state and the federal government. The District 65 School Board and administration are both very committed to holding a high standard for performance for all students and each subgroup of students. We welcome the higher standard that CCSS and PARCC set. In fact, District 65’s local accountability standard has been set at a level higher than the State’s meeting standards cut point on the ISAT for a number of years.
I would be remiss if I did not report the concerns expressed by many, if not most, family members and concerned citizens, during our open forums. The issues they raised include the following.
• Over-testing: Family members are concerned about the amount and types of tests their children must take. They see too much time spent on test preparation and not on engaging instruction. With regard to PARCC, they question why it has to be given every year from grade 3-8 and to every child.
• The length of the test and test anxiety: Family members are particularly concerned with their children sitting for over 9 hours of testing, especially so for younger children and those with special needs. They expressed concerns about the anxiety children feel about testing in general, and PARCC specifically, especially if the test is used for high stakes for the student (student placement in classes) and/or the school.
• The purposes of test: Family members are concerned about whether the test will truly be used for instructional improvement or solely for accountability purposes to judge the performance of schools and educators. On accountability, several family members suggested that the tests be given to a representative sample of students in any given building to determine school performance and growth rather than the entire student body.
• Data Availability: Many community members questioned why it will take so long to deliver results to families, educators and administrators. An assessment billed as helpful for all where data are not available for months leaves citizens leery.
• Staging the implementation of the test: Community members noted that every new initiative comes with implementation problems and concerns. They stressed that PARCC should have been phased in and given to a smaller sample of children in each district in its first year to uncover first-year implementation problems that can then be adjusted before full implementation.
• “Opting-out” versus “refusing”: Family members much preferred having the ability to “opt-out” before test administration rather than having their children “refuse” every test offered to them. Family members especially think that requiring a child to refuse a test from an authority figure at their school puts undo pressure on the student, especially very young students and those with special needs.
• Concerns about implementation: Citizens noted several concerns including:
– What happens if the technology fails? Does a student have to re-take the test?,
-Why do teachers have to either cover their bulletin boards and word walls or actually take them down?, and
-On a test that is admittedly harder, what will the state really do with regard to sanctions towards schools and educators?
• The State forcing a test on citizens: Many family members expressed concern about the state forcing a test on their children and being rather stubborn and inflexible about the concerns they, as citizens, may have expressed.
• Assessment costs: Several community members expressed concern about the amount of money being spent on this assessment. Others also expressed concern about whether the contract with Pearson was fairly and competitively bid, and whether the state could choose a different vendor in the future if Pearson fails to deliver a high quality testing experience.
My explanation that an education system nested in world class standards, coupled with an aligned assessment system, will help educators prepare students to be college, career and life ready did not resonate with many of the families with whom we met. Rather, they expressed concern that the state is forcing an assessment on children with too many unknowns to be certain that the new system will actually work and deliver.
My intent with this letter is to provide the sentiments of the public that I serve, which most probably reflect concerns of citizens across the state. My staff and I have closely reviewed the documents created by ISBE about PARCC; we cannot find direct answers to some of the concerns our community members raised. We need, for example, clear guidance on how the test can be used for instructional purposes and a specific description of the new accountability system. We also need specific timelines for data release this year and in future years.
In District 65, we have invested many hundreds of hours in preparing for this test recognizing that the first year of implementing anything new will bring challenges. That said, we have serious concerns about the unintended impact PARCC may have on schools. For example, I have heard from several principals that our special educators will have much less time for instruction during the PARCC windows than they had during the ISAT window because we must deploy these staff to help with required testing accommodations. I believe that our citizens deserve a transparent process for understanding what challenges arise during 2015 PARCC testing and how those challenges will be resolved for next year.
I recognize that addressing some of the concerns raised by our community members would require legislative changes at the state and federal levels. Suggestions like allowing districts to administer assessments for state and federal accountability to a random sample of students are worthy of legislative consideration. Offering a statewide accountability assessment, aligned with CCSS, to a representative sample of students in every school at key transition points (grade 3, grade 5 or 6 as middle school starts, grade 8 as students transition to high school, and grade 11) can provide much needed data for accountability purposes. Providing districts with opportunities to take PARCC or another similar assessment aligned with CCSS would allow much desired flexibility. Allowing parents to refuse the test once, rather than forcing their children to do so at every setting, would address many of the concerns voiced by our community members.
I believe our citizens would be more supportive of PARCC if they knew that their concerns were taken seriously. It would be very helpful for ISBE to release a more general statement to citizens across the state that directly addresses the concerns raised above.
I stand ready to help the state reflect on the implementation of PARCC this year. I am also more than willing to participate in deliberations at the state and federal levels on the reauthorization of NCLB, reflecting on the implementation of CCSS and aligned assessments from a schools and district perspective. Please let me know how I can be of assistance.
— Paul Goren, Superintendent of Schools Evanston/Skokie District 65