UNION COUNTY, NJ — At the end of January, when two key players came together to discuss the pros and cons of the controversial PARCC testing, they vowed to meet again after the first round of testing was over. Both kept their word.
Last week Wendell Steinhauer, president of the New Jersey Education Association, and Sandra Alberti, an educator, former director of academic standards for the New Jersey Department of Education and key player in the design of the PARCC test, came together once again May 5 on 101.5 FM radio to discuss candidly where things are now that the second round of testing is under way.
While the congenial discussion brought out strong feelings on both sides about the testing that has become a hot button issue throughout the state, both educators managed to get their points across without any animosity.
Alberti, who has been involved with PARCC since the beginning, made it clear that while there were technical “glitches” that surfaced during the first round of testing, generally things went well.
She did, however, agree that things could have gone more smoothly.
“It was a challenge, with the opt-outs and different metrics involved, but it was better than we anticipated,” the educator said, assuring “the small technical challenges were quickly resolved.”
“After all the noise, there are some real successes,” Alberti said, but failed to point to anything specific as an example.
On the other hand, Steinhauer did not mince words. He argued that when 50,000 people walk out of the test and children lose 40 days of classroom teaching, “that is not a success.”
“The glitches — we all knew that was coming, but the biggest problem was the disruption in the schools and ending up losing a full month in the classroom as a result,” said the NJEA president, who spent 30 years as a teacher.
Alberti explained that the design of the test had nothing to do with the problems schools experienced before and during the testing.
“It’s the implementation that went very wrong,” she argued, pointing out the PARCC test was not designed to be prepared for, but rather used as a measure of what students actually were learning in the classroom.
Alberti explained that, if students lost a month in the classroom, it was because school districts felt the need to prepare students for testing rather than just let them take the test to gauge where and if curricula needed to be adjusted.
Steinhauer, though, had a problem with that premise.
“Are you saying that if a teacher just teaches the way they did before they would be ready for this new online test?” he asked.
“That is exactly what I mean,” Alberti responded, pointing out “the assessment is designed to support what is going on in the classroom.”
Steinhauer, though, felt Alberti was off course.
“Most of the school districts are trying to work with this, but they are giving a test that is not aligned to the curriculum yet,” he explained, adding that the state made changes before curricula was brought up to that level.
Moderator Eric Scott interjected at this point to ask who gave the order for school districts to prepare for the PARCC testing.
Steinhauer admitted superintendents, teachers and other stakeholders gave that go ahead because they were worried about test scores and the continuing threat that state aid would be withheld if a school district did not meet the 95-percent threshold of students taking the test.
Alberti confessed quite candidly that she did not like that “trickle down” type of pressure.
“In my idealistic world I didn’t want threatening to remove funding to be a part of this,” she said, explaining the testing is very new and test scores are not even in yet. She did note that PARCC testing was implemented to “support quality education.”
Steinhauer, though, shot back that “if this test is supposed to be the best thing since sliced bread, why the threats? Teachers and students got led down the garden path on this.”
As far as the time spent preparing for the test, Steinhauer said districts had to shut down schools for 40 days because they had to educate teachers, parents and students about the dynamics of testing online.
One teacher that called into the show agreed.
“The general consensus of my students was they didn’t care. It all comes down to individuals because everyone has a different learning capability,” he said.
Another teacher, also a PARCC test coordinator, explained how difficult it was to set up this new testing while trying to prepare for teaching classes. Although this was quite difficult for this educator, the PARCC testing proved to be even more difficult.
“Being a test coordinator has been very stressful,” she said.
Yet another teacher said it changed the way she taught, leaving less than three hours a day to actually teach as well as dealing with the restrictions in place regarding using a computer during school hours because the bandwidth was needed for PARCC testing.
“Everything comes to a halt when PARCC testing is under way,” she explained, adding she only has 180 days to teach her first-grade students to read and write and PARCC testing left her uneasy about the job she had to do. This educator urged Steinhauer “to continue the fight.”
Scott said he heard many teachers say it changed the way they teach, but Alberti did not agree.
“That’s a leadership problem. I would rather see our teachers advocating more technology. That’s where the fight should be,” she said, adding “the NJEA has been spinning misinformation.”
“The focus should be on the quality of education, not the fear factor,” Alberti added.
Steinhauer, while pleased to hear teachers speaking out on the issue, made it clear this was not unusual by any means.
“I haven’t heard anyone say ‘this was a fabulous test, give it to me again,’” said the president of the NJEA, but Alberti felt the entire premise of the test was being missed amid all the negative hype that began surfacing last year.
“I would say for students it’s not the stress of taking the test but the pressure of how much it will count in the future,” she said, explaining that many of the 50,000 students who opted out of the test did so because of wanting to support teachers who were not in favor of PARCC.
“The question here is whether teachers should be telling students how bad PARCC is,” Steinhauer said, adding “there is nothing worse than going in everyday and teaching but knowing the curriculum is bad.”
“What I’m hearing is this test is ridiculous. I’m not hearing anyone say this was of value,” the head of the NJEA union said, adding “if this is growing pains, fine, but to take two months of teaching away is just wrong.”
Alberti again stressed that the entire concept of PARCC was to find a common measure in order to calibrate learning across the board.
“If we can’t measure how students are doing, if we don’t have results across the board, how do we gauge if the curriculum is right,” she said.
Steinhauer, though, felt Alberti missed the point.
“We do support standardized testing, just not this test,” he said, pointing out that while school districts previously gave six tests in a school year, they now give 17.
“A whole generation of students, 12 years, and what have we learned?” he asked, arguing that because of all this testing school districts are losing teachers “who want to teach, but they are not teaching anymore.”
Alberti did not agree.
“I think we are carrying baggage into this new testing,” she said, adding that she has heard from teachers that PARCC “by and far is a better test.”
Alberti did feel there still was work to be done and suggested school districts avail themselves of the free resources PARCC provides on aligning teaching with giving the test.
“This is part of the challenges we have to address. I think we need to accurately address the problems,” she said.
However, Steinhauer felt the test itself was the culprit, suggesting that PARCC release some of the questions so educators know what they are up against.
“The problem is, if I don’t know what the test looks like, how I can line up my curriculum as a teacher? That’s the real problem,” he said.
Alberti assured the NJEA president that PARCC would be releasing information once the results are in and they have a better idea of how students did on the testing. She said that should be in October.
Steinhauer felt something was seriously wrong when so much pressure was put on students and teachers.
“Schools and parents have hit the top and they are saying ‘enough,’’’ he shot back.
Alberti did not agree, pointing out again that PARCC testing was designed well, and if there was any stress because of the testing, it was coming from another source.
“The stress we all feel is in the implementation and that has gone very wrong,” she said, putting the blame on school districts, not PARCC.
The two agreed to meet again in October to discuss the issue further, once the PARCC testing results are released.