PARCC Or Bust

The PARCC test simply will not die.

The state of NJ sits stubbornly on the list of the 6 states plus DC, out of the original 26, that grip the PARCC test like a dying wish.

Well, nearly 50 people stormed the State Board of Education meeting to pry that dying wish out of the State’s cold dead hands.

Blood is in the water here in NJ. The opt out movement far surpassed the Education Commissioner Hespe’s original prediction. Parents have now seen the effects of these ill-conceived tests and every single day someone new asks me about how they can opt their child out.

But the PARCC will not leave NJ quietly.

Not with Commissioner Hespe sitting on the PARCC Advisory Board. Not with Commissioner Hespe at the head of the Study Commisssion on the Use of Student Assessments in NJ. Not with that Commission recommending that the PARCC test, after only ONE year under its belt, become the sole test required for graduation.

Hespe went from confidently dismissing the opt out movement as a weak and misguided minority to treating the movement as a serious force to be reckoned with.

Hespe is sweating.

Now is not the time to back down.

The first threat Hespe doled out was that parents were not allowed to opt out. (Yet thousands of parents found a way to refuse.)

The second threat was that students whose parents refused to allow them to take the PARCC would have to sit and stare throughout the entire test. (Very few districts stuck to this policy and finally Hespe came out and discouraged sit and stare policies.)

The third threat was that opt outs would cause schools to lose funding. (Parents refused anyway and there has yet to be any evidence that ANY school district lost funding. See this video by, superintendent and opt out leader, Dr. Michael Hynes for more evidence.)

The threats weren’t working. Parents would not back down, and the numbers of parents opting out began to climb.

So Hespe and other test supporters tried a different tack. They reduced the testing time… a little.  See parents…we are listening to you. Now shut up and go away.

But the reduction in testing time only spoke to a tiny fraction of the criticisms of the PARCC. Then the test results came out and the vast majority of the state of NJ (one of the best performing states in education) FAILED.  Hmmm….looks a lot like what happened in NY and their opt out movement is at least 10 times that in NJ.

Don’t worry they said. It’s the first year of the test. The kids will get better, after all, these tests are rigorous…it will take time for little Johnny and Mary Lou to catch up. They need typing practice and time to learn how to navigate the testing tools like scroll bars and rulers on the screen. They need to learn how to engage in close reading and explain their math answers in explicit detail.

And if that isn’t enough encouragement….

Insert the fourth threat…

Your kid takes the test every year from 7th grade on or he can’t graduate.

You hear that parents! They won’t. We swear they won’t. Don’t you dare opt out. We hold your kids’ future in OUR hands not YOURS. We say PARCC or bust.

Well played Hespe, well played.

Well I say…

There is no wizard behind the curtain.

Call his bluff.

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Monkey in the Middle

“One of these things is not like the other. One of these things just doesn’t belong.”

Hopscotch.

Double dutch.

Kickball.

Catch.

Flip flop.

One of these games has no place in the schoolyard. One of these games is hurtful to children and impossible to play fairly.

Flip flop.

A game suited for politics not education.

Education has become the playground for politicians. They change policies and stances on a whim trying to appeal to voters, when the winds of favor begin to shift. A scant few of these decision-makers have any experience or knowledge in the field of education, yet every single one has the confidence and often ignorant audacity to make grand statements and enact sweeping changes without a minute’s hesitation.

Sure, one can argue that politicians have advisers. They assemble commissions. They hold public town hall meetings. They fill in the gaps of their experience and knowledge with the wisdom and experience of others.

However, this system of communication is broken. The advisers do not possess the knowledge or experience base specific to K-12 education and the voices of the public are simply not heard.

Take NJ for example. Governor Chris Christie appointed David Hespe to Commissioner of Education. Hespe has some experience in education (see his bio), but it is limited to mostly the college level except for a stint as Assistant and Interim Superintendent in Willingboro School District. He also did some work with STEM activities at Liberty Science Center. However, the vast majority of his experience is political.

So we have Commissioner Hespe, who headed the Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in NJ. I was able to attend two of the three public hearings held by this Commission and witnessed students, parents, teachers, administrators, and school board members speak about the damaging effects of the PARCC tests and the implementation of Common Core. Yet, after each of these public hearings, Hespe published an Op-Ed piece continuing to laud the benefits of Common Core and PARCC in the state of NJ. He did not acknowledge the experience and knowledge of the public who took the time and energy to prepare and deliver testimony. Read my testimony here.

In fact, Commissioner Hespe cared so little about what the public had to say that during the third public hearing he walked out during a short lunch break and did not return. Hespe never gave an excuse or an apology, nor did he or Governor Christie, who appointed him, respond to my petition asking to replace him as the head of the Study Commission.

So when Governor Christie came out suddenly against the Common Core, I knew his decision run for president would not be far behind. Why? Because it was purely a political move. If it had any educational weight at all, then it would have stemmed from those public hearings, from the town hall meetings, from the growing opt out movement in the state, or from the droves of frustrated students, parents, teachers, and administrators.

Flip flop.

In an article by Amanda Oglesby in App.com, Christie appears to be one with the people of NJ.

“I have heard from far too many people — teachers and parents from across the state — that the Common Core standards were not developed by New Jersey educators and parents,” Christie, who is running for president, said in a May speech at Burlington County College. “As a result, the buy-in from both communities has not been what we need for maximum achievement. I agree. It is time to have standards that are even higher and come directly from our communities.”

The problem is that he hasn’t heard anyone really. He tells teachers to shut up. His own Commissioner walks out of public hearings.

Under his direction, NJ has spent millions on the conversion to Common Core Standards and the Common Core-aligned PARCC tests through the tests themselves and the new curriculum, technology, and countless hours of professional development that they have required. He already has what he calls “buy-in”, because our tax money has already been spent and wasted.

Flip flop.

When this new imagined set of community-created standards hits the ground, who will pay for all of those changes? Will Pearson, the company cashing in on all of the flips and flops refund the money spent, so that NJ can invest it in mythical standards that are even ‘higher’?

Maybe politicians like Christie ought to learn a new game.

Just for a moment stop the lip service and take a look at the monkey in the middle.

Our children.

Except for them this is more than a game and they are the ones losing.

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Letter to the Editor AC Press: “PARCCing: No Time to Learn”

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In the article, “Schools Get More Time to give PARCC”, published on March 7, due to the weather delays and closings last week, the state Department of Education allowed for more days to add to the testing calendar. The testing window now extends until the week of March 24. Though snow cannot be predicted, the loss of learning time is inexcusable.  With a week off in April for spring break, students will then face an additional week of PARCC testing in May.

School districts have given up so much of the school year to tests that it leaves parents to wonder when their children have time to learn. The PARCC is nothing but a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Originally, there were 22 states participating in the PARCC consortium and now the number has dipped below 10 states. Why is NJ taking so long to abandon the expensive promises of high stakes standardized tests? As school budgets are approved this month with more cuts, pay attention to how much these tests are costing your district on top of what they are costing your children’s education. It is not too late to refuse. Put education back into the hands of teachers. Corporations like Pearson, who makes this test, do not have our children’s best interests in mind.

Attention Governor Christie: The Study Commission on the Use of Assessments Needs a New Face

Dear Members of the Study Commission,

Thank you for your service on this Commission thus far. I was present in the audience at the public hearing in Jackson and presented my testimony in Camden. The number of people who took the time to come to the hearings and deliver such well-researched and passionate testimony speaks to the severity of the problem the use of assessments in NJ has become.

The fact that the head of the Commission, Commissioner Hespe, left the hearing in Camden after only two hours of testimony without explanation or apology alone is grounds for him to be removed as head of the Commission. Furthermore, it was a grossly dishonest misrepresentation of the testimony delivered at all three hearings for Mr. Hespe to publish an article in the Asbury Park Press just three days after he left the hearing prematurely.

(http://www.app.com/story/opinion/columnists/2015/02/20/nj-ed-commish-parents-demand-test-like-parcc/23754797/)

I have started an active campaign to takeover Mr. Hespe’s position as head of the Commission. Please take a moment to read the Open Letter that I wrote to Mr. Hespe.

https://pushingthependulum.com/2015/02/22/an-open-letter-to-the-nj-state-commissioner-of-education-david-hespe/

photo credit: kdphotography67.com

Paige Vaccaro testifying before the Commission in Camden photo credit: kdphotography67.com

I have sent a copy to Governor Christie and have applied formally on the DOE website to be appointed to this position. I also plan to take any steps necessary to make my campaign known to the public.

My experience as an educator for 12 years has been quite diverse. I have taught in three states in both public and charter schools. I have taught in the inner city communities of Baltimore, Brooklyn and Newark and in a suburb in Monmouth County. I have also tutored and run classes at the high school and college level in addition to preparing and presenting several professional development workshops.

I am certified to teach grades K-12 and have home schooled preschool for three of my four children so far. I am an active member in the community who often attends and speaks at board meetings. I have also served as a Vice President of a local PTA. I am an English major adept at reading and analyzing large amounts of information and a skilled writer as evidenced by my popular blog http://www.pushingthependulum.com.

I recognize that there are already teachers serving as members. However, I resigned from teaching in August of 2014, therefore I am able to speak more freely about the issues that teachers face. I am also a mother to four young children and feel that the commission desperately needs true parent representation. The Commission member from the NJPTA does not represent all of its members fairly as shown with the We Raise NJ and JerseyCAN campaign that are blatantly pro-PARCC. This is a conflict of interest if the Commission’s goal is to provide the Governor with a fair, unbiased report on the use of assessments in NJ.

At the very least, to balance the pro-PARCC members of the Commission, there ought to be a member of the refusal movement on the Commission as well.

I would appreciate a prompt response to my request to avoid any unnecessary steps, such as a petition. However, I am more than prepared to start one and to follow through with my intention to transform this Commission into what it should have been from the start. The residents of NJ deserve to be heard and for their testimony to be represented fairly and considered appropriately.

Once a member of this Commission, I intend to explore other ways, besides public hearings and accepting emails, to gauge the effects of assessments in NJ. I would help develop surveys for parents, students, teachers, and administrators to get a more widespread idea of public opinions on the matter. Much of NJ has no idea that this Commission even exists, so how can their voices be heard?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Paige Vaccaro

In the Blink of an Eye

I remember the moment when I first looked into the eyes of of my first baby. His eyes black as night peered at me from under the blanket draped over us, Barely wiped down from the messy miracle of birth, he was placed against my bare chest. We could have been anywhere at all. In a cab. In a meadow. On the moon. Those eyes were all that I saw, the only things in the world, besides his soft heartbeat against my chest.

It’s easy to forget the wonder of that moment in the rush of everyday life. The lunchboxes to pack. The homework to complete. The papers to sign and return. The toys on the floor. The dishes in the sink. The laundry, the laundry, the laundry. But yet it is a wonder that we adults should never take for granted.

When I was pregnant with my first baby, the first ultrasound was incredible. I had never seen anything like it. The grossness of a transvaginal ultrasound (sorry fellas but reading those words is much easier than going through one) suddenly didn’t matter when the little flicker of the heartbeat came into focus on the screen. That was my baby growing inside of me.

By the third ultrasound, I was obsessed with them. I carried the pictures with me everywhere and stared at them in awe. Ultrasounds were the coolest things in the world. I remarked once to the technician, at the 6 month ultrasound for my second baby, that she must have one of the best jobs in the world. To which she replied, “Yes, when the baby is healthy.” I felt my heart drop into the pit of my stomach.

My first pregnancy and delivery had gone without a hitch. I had no reason to think about complications. I was so lucky, and I never even thought twice about it. Of course the technician’s job wasn’t all declaring with glee, “It’s a boy”, or “It’s a girl.” Sometimes there was no heartbeat. No heartbeat. I couldn’t imagine, but in that moment of awkward silence I was forced to.

I had no way of knowing that that baby inside me that day would be born prematurely. I had no idea that I would be rushed for an emergency C-section and that I wouldn’t hear him cry when he was born, because he had trouble breathing and was rushed from the room. I had no idea that I wouldn’t hold him for over 24 hours after birth, or that I would learn to nurse him with an IV sticking out of his scalp.

Thankfully, he was okay after a few days in the NICU and was able to come home with us from the hospital. Though, I met many parents that were not so fortunate.

Now my first baby is 7 years old and my second is 5. I don’t know where the time goes, but I know it goes quickly. Just talk to any parent of a child about to graduate high school, and they will tell you that it feels like just yesterday that they were putting their child on the bus to kindergarten.

Testing starts on Monday in our town and across much of New Jersey. And I think what bothers me the most is the precious time that is being wasted. Ask parents what they want for their children more than anything in the world and few will reply high test scores, but many will say that they want their children to be happy.

Why make school feel like work?

Children are in school a fleeting 13 years (not counting college, if they attend). The current life expectancy in the U.S. is 79 years old. They will spend the vast majority of their lives working. Of course we all hope our children love their occupations, but the reality is that many adults do not.

Why not invest the time, energy, and money wasted on testing our children to death and spend it on making the 13 years of school more inspiring, engaging, and full of learning driven by discovery and doing instead of receiving? The test makers claim that their tests make education more rigorous and prepare children for college and careers. Well, I think rigor comes from teaching, thinking,and applying knowledge to actual tasks and projects not from tests.

Children best prepared for the world spend time in it from a young age. You want to prepare children for college and careers, improve the foreign language programs in America that are grossly lacking compared to other countries. Take the children on more trips to see their town, state, country, and world. Sure, have the children analyze text, but then instead of answering questions on the computer, ask them to take what they learned and DO something with that knowledge.

They could write and deliver a persuasive speech. Participate in a debate. Create an advertisement. Draw a comic strip. Design a lesson about what they read and teach it to the class. Write and illustrate a children’s book about it. Research other points of view and compare and contrast them. Start a service learning project to make real progress towards solving a problem they read about.

Those activities require higher order thinking skills and demonstrate rigor much more than a test with multiple choice, short answers or even a complex essay. Yet those activities are being cut from teacher lesson plans in favor of more and more worksheets to “get through” the demands of the Common Core and more and more test prep to prepare for tests that are tied to teachers’ livelihood.

On Monday, the test will begin and the clock will keep ticking. Ticking off the minutes they have to complete each section. Ticking off minutes for short breaks. Ticking off the minutes until school is over and they can finally run free. Ticking off minutes of their childhood that they will not get back, even if the PARCC test is thrown out in a year or two.

In the blink of an eye, a piece of their precious childhood will be wasted.

And all of us are to blame.

My parents and I with my second son in the NICU.

My parents and I with my second son in the NICU.

Preaching Beyond the Choir: Refuse the PARCC

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

-Margaret Mead

Last night, at the second public hearing of the Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in NJ, it was clear that there is a ” small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” embarking on a journey to reverse damaging and money-driven education reforms.

6pm on a Thursday night is not a great time for the public to come out to talk about education. Many people concerned with education teach and/or have children of their own to care for, but that did not stop over 150 people from attending. After quickly feeding my 4 kids and kissing them goodbye I drove an hour to arrive at the 6pm start and stayed until 9. For three hours I listened, but the testimony went on for over 5 hours.

The speakers were students, teachers, parents, administrators, and board members who were incredibly well-prepared and passionate. Much more prepared than NJ was for the growing number of test refusals.  Local school boards and superintendents have been floundering to create policies as the state’s position on test refusals has been inconsistent and unclear from the start.

(No you can’t opt out. No you can’t refuse. Wait, yes you can refuse, but your school will lose money. No they won’t lose money, but your child will have to sit and stare. Wait, they can read a book in the testing room. No wait they can’t be in the testing room. You need to keep them home. No actually we will send them home. Well, actually they will be in another room, but we won’t teach them. Well, let’s just leave it up to the local school boards, but we don’t condone refusing.)

Commissioner Hespe and now the NJPTA have suggested that there is only a small group of misinformed parents leading this test refusal movement. They could not be further from the truth. First of all, one speaker named delivered a petition, with over 9,300 signatures,expressing opposition to the use of high stakes testing in NJ. (You can sign here.) So perhaps the group is not as small as it may seem.

And misinformed? In reality, every single speaker had clearly done their research and every testimony was filled with facts, research and first hand experience. For those who spoke have lived the damage caused by these reforms. The educators teach in classrooms where autonomy is shrinking in favor of test prep and a love of learning replaced by feelings of inferiority and failure. The parents see the differences in their children and the frustration with nightly homework that is difficult to understand. The students a high school freshman (Jacob Hartman) and a 19 year-old college education major (Melissa Katz) showed their intelligence and drive by hammering the commission with diligent research and fact upon fact.

The crowd was energetic and supportive of each other, united in this tiring yet noble battle to take back education from the crushing control of greedy individuals and corporations and hand it back to the teachers and students to whom it rightfully belongs.  Only one speaker spoke in favor of the PARCC, but a savvy blogger quickly revealed today that that woman was nothing more than a spokesperson for the NJPTA. Read her post here. The NJPTA has suddenly stepped into the PARCC debate to help us ignorant parents sort the whole thing out.

“Her [Debbie Tyrell’s] successor, incoming NJPTA president Rose Acerra, added: “There is a small group of parents making noise, but I think there are more who are looking up to us to give them information.”

The fact is that this small group of parents causing the ruckus IS informed. They are not looking to anyone for information for they have done the research for themselves. But the challenge now becomes how does this small group get this research and knowledge out to the rest of the unsuspecting parents out there?

The answer is easier than we think. The first step was to write all of the amazing testimony. Now we just need to get people to read it and watch the videos to see the passion and intelligence behind this movement. As the PARCC test dates get closer, the effects of test-driven education will drive more and more parents and teachers to look for a way out.

The fire is set, now we must fan the flames and watch it spread across NJ.

Please take a moment to watch one of these videos from last night or read one testimony. Even just one will be enough to create a spark. We need to get more people thinking and questioning the value of the PARCC and other high stakes tests. You can also tune in to NJ101.5  or follow Amanda Oglesby at APP.com or on Twitter @OglesbyAPP.

Here are some links to a few of the testimonies from last night.

A parent from Manalapan, Inbar Shalev Robbins

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FblpTQ5hQXU&feature=youtu.be

A teacher and blogger named Sarah

https://thereadingzone.wordpress.com/2015/01/30/my-parcc-hearing-testimony/

A teacher Jaclyn Brown

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCyfNo7xXu4&feature=youtu.be

For more information on the Opt Out Movement in NJ please check the state Facebook page: Opt Out of State Standardized Tests – New Jersey or look for a local group in your area.

Beware….this fire is catching.

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Typing Homework: The New Key to Success in Elementary School?

Homework.

Ask any teacher, student, or parent and they are certain to have an opinion about it.

Teachers:

  • “It’s necessary reinforcement of skills learned in class.”
  • “Oh really, your dog ate it? I have never heard that one before.”
  • “It gives students a chance to do what we don’t have time for in class.”
  • “It’s an easy way to raise your grades, if you do it on time!”

Students:

  • “It’s a waste of time.”
  • “I love fun projects.”
  • “I don’t have time because of my other after school activities.”
  • “It’s a good way to raise your average.”
  • “Wait! We had homework?!”

Parents:

  • “It keeps my kids busy and out of my hair.”
  • “The projects are more work for me than my kids.”
  • “It is a struggle to squeeze it in with everything else we have to do after school.”
  • “It’s busy work. I doubt the teacher even reads it!”

Having taught both elementary and middle school, I can say with confidence that homework is much more time-consuming and onerous in middle school. The fact that students have 6-8 different teachers makes it difficult for teachers to balance the amount of homework and projects due at once. Once you factor in quizzes and tests, it can get even more complicated.

I used to give tons of homework as a new middle school English teacher, but over the years I cut back considerably. I realized how many of my students were overbooked after school between religious commitments, sports practices, music lessons, tutoring, etc. I lived in town with my students and saw few of them riding bikes, raking leaves, playing games like I did as a kid.  Few were reading books or pleasure either, because they were just too busy with structured homework and activities.

I started limiting homework as much as I could and shifted to encourage independent reading as much as possible. My students kept journals and recorded their thoughts as they read on sticky notes. I created a culture of reading in a more relaxed way and found much more authentic learning and thinking was happening than when they were doing nightly vocabulary assignments, for example.

Now, with the new PARCC assessment coming in the spring, students will be tested completely on the computer starting in the 3rd grade (and as early as kindergarten next year). These tests come with stakes higher than ever as the schools will use the data to evaluate teachers and administrators and to determine funding and graduation. It has been said over and over that online testing will revolutionize education and they are right. But it won’t be in a good way.

An online test requires typing skills for the students to be able to complete the test in a reasonable time frame. (These time frames can be seen here: http://parcconline.org/update-session-times. The test duration is 60-75 minutes a day for each ELA and Math for 4 days TWICE a year.)

The demand for typing skills has led many districts to purchase typing programs and even to begin assigning weekly typing homework. I have even heard educators and administrators discuss ways to help your child build stamina for these long tests by playing online games or reading on a Kindle or other type of device.

Recently the Atlantic City Press ran an article about the new emphasis on typing classes and to be honest it made my stomach lurch. Particularly this section,

“While most students can text up a storm or race through video games, they rarely have to use more than two fingers to do it. Slusarski teaches keyboarding to show them how they can use all of their fingers to be more efficient. She said it can be difficult for younger students, whose hands may not yet be big enough to spread across the keyboard, but they try.”

http://www.pressofatlanticcity.com/education/teachers-hope-typing-classes-hold-keys-to-test-success/article_54ccaaf8-74ea-11e4-9bb3-0fa656cb1179.html

The article went on to praise the a child who was recognized for achieving the fastest typing record in his school. He attributes his success to playing computer games at home.

Why is it that a student’s typing speed is suddenly a marker of success in fifth grade,  as if school were a vocational school? Suddenly, instead of limiting screen time for my children as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends, I should be worried that since my kids don’t play video games and stare at screens that they will be at a disadvantage in school? Should I start finger stretching exercises prior to kindergarten to help my children’s fingers “spread across the keyboard”?

This is insane. I send my children to school to learn, not to be trained. Not only will my children not take these developmentally inappropriate tests, but they will not be participating in typing homework as young as third grade. In fact, I am starting to wonder exactly how much screen time my children are getting in school.

The real question is why hasn’t the American Academy of Pediatrics come out against the national push toward online testing. Their stance on limiting screen time is clear.

“Today’s children are spending an average of seven hours a day on                                entertainment media, including televisions, computers, phones and                            other electronic devices. …Studies have shown that excessive media use  can            lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders,                  and obesity. In addition, the Internet and cell phones can  provide platforms            for illicit and risky behaviors.”

– See more at: http://www.aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-health-initiatives/Pages/Media-and-Children.aspx#sthash.hAyoJto7.dpuf

But I can show you what my children were doing this week after school. You tell me if you think I should stop them and start typing practice and online games instead.

My oldest drew about 15 pictures and was teaching his brothers all he has been learning in school about Native Americans.

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My kindergartener made a painting for his Winter-themed Show-and-Tell.

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All three played with shaving cream, homemade play dough, and helped to paint a castle created from the recycling bin.

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It is time to start advocating for what is best for our children.