What's Wrong With the New Standardized Tests Coming to a School Near You

What if they gave a test and nobody came? During the '60s, “Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?” was a popular anti-war slogan. That logic still resonates with me today—about war, and about the testing regime that currently has a stranglehold on our schools.


In Illinois, where I live, this spring we will have the pleasure of welcoming the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (or PARCC) test to our educational communities. PARCC is a nationally standardized assessment that supposedly measures student mastery of the Common Core curriculum. It is one more test for our children to grind through, but if enough parents opt out of having their children take it, there may be a way to make it obsolete in the future.

What do I have against this test? Let me count the ways:

  1. Our kids are already tested to death. What we do not need is yet another test on the agenda.
  2. My granddaughter in third grade will be taking the test this year, and preparing for it seems to take up the bulk of the third grade curriculum.
  3. The test requires kids to have decent computer and keyboarding skills, which almost certainly favors kids who have access to computers at home.
  4. The questions on the sample test, even the ones for third grade, seem pretty tough. Some of them are developmentally inappropriate and beyond what even a very bright 8-year-old would know.
  5. PARCC is focused entirely on math and literacy. Both are important, but what about the rest of what kids should be learning?

I could go on with my list, but the story of Peggy Robertson, a brave educator in Aurora, Colorado, offers a more potent illustration: she is refusing to administer the PARCC exam to her students.

Robertson is a teacher, literacy and instructional coach, and an advocate for an end to corporate educational reform. She is a co-founder of United Opt Out, a national organization advocating for the rights of parents to opt their children out of standardized tests. Robertson is also a contributor to CO R.A.V.E., a group of parents, students, teachers, citizens, and union members dedicated to reclaiming and improving Colorado public schools. Their goals are to take down corporate education reform and to bring authentic teaching and learning back to Colorado’s public schools.

Robertson’s refusal to administer PARCC is her stand against high stakes testing linked to the Common Core. She believes this type of curriculum, accompanied by PARCC, does a disservice to kids. In a recent letter published in the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, Robertson argues that the educational expectations of the Common Core standards are especially harmful to both young learners (because of developmentally inappropriate expectations) and to children living in poverty (because they need food, safe places to live, small classes, and healthcare far more than they need PARCC testing).

The case she makes is compelling. In her letter to the citizens of Colorado, Robertson invokes a comparison to the private school President Obama’s daughters attend to drive home her point. She writes,

“I believe our children deserve what President Obama’s children have at Sidwell [Friends School], where teachers have autonomy to teach without scripted common core curriculum and common core high stakes testing. I take objection to the fact that our children are being used as guinea pigs in an experiment to implement standards which were never field tested, are copyrighted, were not created using a democratic process, and were not created with the input of classroom teachers…In order to pay for these tests, technology, and curriculum, we strip our schools of much needed resources such as books, small class size, librarians, nurses, counselors and more.”

With Robertson’s words in mind, I decided to check out a sample third-grade PARCC test for myself. Below are a few of the sample questions my 8-year-old granddaughter may have to answer this spring. Remember, the third graders are expected to take this test on computers, adding another layer of difficulty when it comes to finding the correct answer and using the mouse to click on it.

Sample Question

Which of these expressions has a difference greater than 50? Select right answer:

  • 279-229
  • 291-244
  • 376-333
  • 300-248

Sample Question

Which of these is a reasonable mass of a new crayon? Select right answer:

  • 15 grams
  • 150 grams
  • 500 grams
  • 1,000 grams

Sample Essay Question

Old Mother West Wind and The Sandwitch both try to teach important lessons to characters in the stories. Write an essay that explains how Old Mother West Wind's and The Sandwitch's words and actions are important to the plots of the stories. Use what you learned about the characters to support your essay.

Sample Comprehension Question

If the reader of this passage wanted to learn more about making axes, which key words should they [sic] enter into a computer search engine? Select right answer:

  • how to make an axe
  • wood
  • the woodman's axe
  • how to chop down wood

Not exactly primed for the 8-year-old mind, are they?

In a piece for the Huffington Post titled, “Sasha Obama, My Daughter, and the PARCC Test: An Open Letter to President Obama,” Rebecca Steinitz, a literacy consultant in urban high schools, details her own introduction to the PARCC test, which will replace the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (or MCAS) in her home state. Now that her daughter will also be taking PARCC, Steinitz decided to try a sample of the test with her daughter, who had historically scored extremely well on the MCAS.

It did not go well. Steinitz’s daughter described the test as “weird,” “nonsensical” and “impossible.” Here’s one example, cited by Steinitz, of the complexity of the questions being asked of seventh graders:

"You have learned about electricity by reading two articles, 'Energy Story' and 'Conducting Solutions,' and viewing a video clip titled 'Hands-On Science with Squishy Circuits.' In an essay, compare the purpose of the three sources. Then analyze how each source uses explanations, demonstrations, or descriptions of experiments to help accomplish its purpose. Be sure to discuss important differences and similarities between the information gained from the video and the information provided in the articles. Support your response with evidence from each source."

What?!? There’s no doubt that even a very bright seventh-grader would struggle with this one. Steinitz’s daughter, an excellent student, got 10 of 45 multiple-choice questions wrong. Her daughter noted she could complete the PARCC essays faster because she was a good keyboarder, but even she knew that typing is a real challenge for some kids.

Now imagine 8-year-olds, many of whom only have access to computers in school, typing essays and using the keyboard to peck out how they got an answer to a math problem. I’m sure a good part of my granddaughter’s school year will be spent on the mechanics of taking the PARCC, and the rest on teaching very specifically to the things asked on the test. My guess is, there won’t be much history, fiction, or art education for her or her classmates this year.

At the end of the post from Peggy Robertson – the teacher in Colorado who is refusing to administer the test -- there were 65 comments. Parents said things like:

Thank you, Peggy! As a mother watching my child struggle through this newly implemented crap and doing my best to teach around it, I am in full support. Opting out in CA.

This is one incredible teacher. People may not realize this, but teachers like our children are caught in this same evil web. I don't know one teacher that believes in any of this insanity. Many are walking away from their profession these days. Teacher turnover is a growing problem all over our nation. Like our children they feel trapped and helpless.

My children will not be participating in the testing this school year, but I only wish I could also keep them from all the "pre-testing" that has been going on since the first day of school. None of this testing existed in prior years, but now the goal of many schools seems to be to find out what students don't know regarding the upcoming PARCC test and then make that the focus of the school year. It's not as if their prior curriculum was creating sub-par students either, so it breaks my heart to see this "teaching to the test" which has been vehemently denied despite the fact it is playing out right now in our classrooms. How can the creators of the Common Core and PARCC obviously have so little regard for what should be the first aim of all educators and academic institutions: creating lifelong lovers of learning.

Their sentiments are widespread, and deserve further attention. Parents, take the time to check out the PARCC sample tests for yourselves. Notice what your child is being taught in school. If you feel like it’s time to send a message by opting out, visit  the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (Fair Test) or United Opt Out National for more information on how to do it. Or just Google the words “opt out testing” to find out more.

You owe it to your kids to do at least that much.

If you'd like to try a sample PARCC test for yourself, you can.

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