That grumbling you hear in the schoolyard? PARCC testing officially started this week — across the country and in Massachusetts, where about half of school districts are test-driving new, computer-based exams aligned with the Common Core. Next fall, the state Board of Education, which adopted those Common Core standards in 2010, will vote on whether to permanently replace MCAS with PARCC.
The anti-PARCC rhetoric has been in full force lately, as politicians attack the Common Core and states consider pulling out. Some concerns are reasonable. Some are overblown. How to cut through the clutter? Here are a few simple suggestions for what Massachusetts parents ought to demand of the system, the schools, and the policy makers.
Standardized tests have always been controversial. When Massachusetts passed its sweeping Education Reform Act in 1993, establishing MCAS as a graduation requirement, the same complaints we hear today were in full pitch: about teaching to the test, reducing kids to numbers, and the inherent unfairness of standards. But MCAS has proven that if you set a bar, most students will reach it. Do we want to return to the days when the only high school graduation requirements were a year of American history and four years of gym?
Still, you can believe in accountability and also think schools spend far too much time on testing. PARCC is designed to be administered twice a year, every year, beginning in third grade — far more often than MCAS was originally meant to be given. And that doesn't count the diagnostic tests and the ad nauseum practice tests.
The state is already studying whether some districts overtest. But here's a different dream experiment I'd love to see: Forbid schools from giving any test prep or drills. Just let teachers teach — and surprise their students with PARCC one day, as if it's another pop quiz. If the curriculum is working and the test is well designed, the students should do fine. If they don't, figure out what's wrong and fix it.
For Massachusetts families, the most compelling question about the Common Core is whether it demands more of students than the old standards, or less. Advocates say the Core will better prepare students for college and the workforce, by emphasizing analysis of English texts and understanding of mathematical concepts.
But former Senate President Tom Birmingham, an architect of Massachusetts' education reform in the 1990s, notes that Massachusetts students already outperform the rest of the nation. If we share the same standards nationwide, he said, the vast temptation will be to dumb down the standards.
Massachusetts does have some flexibility: States are permitted to change 15 percent of the Common Core standards. Massachusetts has already added some requirements, such as teaching coins in first grade and negative numbers in fifth.
So let's use our leverage to address particular areas of concern. Here's a big one: High school math. The Common Core standards end in 12th grade with what critics say is a weakened version of Algebra II. Schools are free to offer more advanced courses, but Birmingham and others fear that most students will be steered down a path that doesn't prepare them adequately for STEM fields. If we're going to choose our battles, that's one worth fighting.
About a year ago, comedian Louis C.K. ranted on Twitter about his kids' math homework, and blamed it on the Common Core. I love you, Louie, but write this on a chalkboard 1,000 times: "The Common Core isn't a curriculum." It's a set of benchmarks, divided by grade level. How to get there is up to school districts. And that "new math" — which offers long, convoluted ways to answer problems most parents were taught to solve with simple algorithms — was making children cry long before the Common Core. (My advice to families: Be rebels if you want to! Carry the one!)
It's true that the Core emphasizes understanding of math concepts. (On PARCC, a student can answer a math problem correctly, but still be docked points for failing to adequately explain her mathematical thinking in words.) And parents are right to worry that, in their rush to comply with new standards, schools will hew even more firmly to bad textbooks — and that textbook publishers, along with testing companies, will be the ultimate winners. Not all "new math" is bad. But bad math is worth resisting.