Wednesday, August 22, 2012

What Was the Question To Which PARCC Is the Answer?

Waiting on Icarus (2009, M.A. Reilly)
I. The Absence of Complexity

I took a look at the new release of PARCC assessment items the other day and specifically spent some time thinking about the demands these prototypes represent and the contexts in which these demands will occur.  PARCC situates the assessments as "next generation, technology-based assessments"  and makes these claims (here):
Better standards require better tests – and the shifts in the standards call for critical advances in assessment quality. PARCC will develop custom items and tasks aligned to the Common Core State Standards.
In regards to the ELA/Literacy assessments, this means PARCC will include:
  • Texts worth reading: The assessments will use authentic texts worthy of study instead of artificially produced or commissioned passages.
  • Questions worth answering: Sequences of questions that draw students into deeper encounters with texts will be the norm (as in an excellent classroom), rather than sets of random questions of varying quality.
This made me a bit uneasy, not because I don't want my son to read or engage, but rather because the language here reminded me of the discourse that typified the high school I attended several decades ago--years before the Internet.  At that time information was thought to be scarce and a private school education was supposed to afford its students access to the coveted information (preferably ahead of others) and in doing so gain its clients entry into select colleges (where even scarcer info could be had). Yet even then a belief that there existed an agreed upon collection of 'texts worth reading' was being challenged.  So too was the idea that a deeper encounter could be had devoid of person and context.

Reading the claims from PARCC reminded me of that important Neil Postman question: What was the question to which this was the answer? 

 Hmm.  So take a moment and see what you think.
What was the question to which these next generation prototypes are the answer?
What world is posited?
What beliefs are held sacred?
Whose power is secured by maintaining such a system?
Who wins? Loses? Profits?

II. Take This Test

Go ahead and access and then read the two texts (Ovid's "Daedalus and Icarus" and Anne Sexton's "To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Triumph") and the four prototype questions here.  I am not asking you to answer the two essay questions, but do take a look, along with the two multiple choice questions.  Keep in mind that the sample ELA test items have been designed for high school sophomores.

So what did you think?  How did you work?

As I reread the poems on my laptop, I started searching terms in an effort to read against each poem, clarify questions, and pose new questions based on the meanings I made.  I am curious as to what you did when you read the texts. Did you seek external sources as well?  Did you talk to others?  Did you search for works you had written that connected?  There were many references that came up as I queried Daedalus, Icarus, Minos, and Perdix.  Just reading the links allowed me to call forth understandings I have had of the many Icarus texts I've taught/read/view/heard and composed (an example at the top of the post). 

As I worked it was painful to think that my child and yours too will not have access to their connected lives when they take this assessment. They will not be asked to make sense of texts through the dominant tools many use daily.  In fact,  my child will be disadvantaged as he lives in a highly connected world. When he has a question or is trying to frame a question, he often skypes with friends, clients, and colleagues across the world.  Just yesterday he shared a program he wrote and when I asked him how he learned to write script he said that he studied examples online, talked with a few people from one of his development teams who are more advanced programmers, and then gave it a try and revised as needed. None of these options will be afforded to him when he takes the 'next generation' test and this should give us pause.

As I read the prototypes I did not see a web 2.0 world, but rather a continuation of the last century, albeit somewhat slicker (the absence of #2 pencils, dragging, highlighting text, etc.).  But what is fundamentally unchanged is that the student is situated in front of a stand alone computer screen.  While the software maybe networked, the student is not. The isolated test taker is unable to interact at will with anything or anyone else and this is contrary to the very career and college world that CCSS purports to be readying your child and mine.

III. What Does It Mean to Be Ready?

I own a consulting business and I cannot recall a time when I was limited to working without any access to resources and not required to frame the question(s), determine resources, and collaborate within a given and nonetheless emerging context.  Most of my work requires me to interact with others and to make and negotiate meaning collaboratively.  This is not to say that I don't produce texts on my own, but rather that the texts I do produce are (in)formed by the client and the context which is always evolving.  As such, the work is complex.  And so in considering how I actually work,  I do not understand how the results from PARCC measures are going to help me and my child know if he is career and college ready.  At best, PARCC offers complicated tasks, but clearly not complex ones as there is no difficulty in tracing the journey each and every child will take well before anyone begins.

I want to say that PARCC and Smarter Balance assessments are little different, at a philosophical level, than the high stakes tests that we have subjected children to since we were first told that we were a nation at risk (mid 1980s).  Instead of valuing learning that children actually do in the myriad of contexts they work and learn in, we continue to create a separate testing reality that costs taxpayers billions, reduces learning time within schools, and is disconnected from important learning dispositions, strategies, and skills we want to cultivate with (not in) children.  Oddly, understanding and being able to perform a range of performance strategies that include collaboration, creation, critique, analysis, evaluation, and representation--while being responsive to emerging situations--cannot be included in measures where learners are isolated beings. Even though it is 2012, we continue to measure excellence with the belief that information is scarce and knowing is akin to that which you can prove on your own. Sadly, it's an every (hu)man for him/her self world.

IV. When Information as Scarce

Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011) define this type of thinking as mechanistic. They write:
Learning is treated as a series of steps to be mastered, as if students were being taught how to operate a machine or even, in some cases, as if the students themselves were machines being programmed to accomplish tasks. The ultimate endpoint of a mechanistic perspective is efficiency: The goal is to learn as much as you can, as fast as you can. In this teaching-based approach, standardization is a reasonable way to do this, and testing is a reasonable way to measure the result. (Kindle Locations 336-338)
In contrast to this mechanistic view of learning Thomas and Brown offer a view to a new culture of learning, one that is absent from the PARCC prototypes:

learning should be viewed in terms of an environment—combined with the rich resources provided by the digital information network—where the context in which learning happens, the boundaries that define it, and the students, teachers, and information within it all coexist and shape each other in a mutually reinforcing way.  (Kindle Locations 329-332).
Instead of examining actual work that learners do for real purposes, we continue to subscribe to the belief that simulated assessment tasks are apt measures of knowing and doing.

It's the 20th  

                  all over,



Work Cited:

Thomas, Douglas; Seely Brown, John (2011-03-12). A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. CreateSpace. Kindle Edition.


  1. I am writing a book on genocide and children's and young adult literature, Cambodia to Darfur, and could not do so without access to conversation with many, many others and many, many sources.

    1. so true jane. We are the stories we tell and hear and become.