Proficiency is NOT Perfection
It's that lovely time again - test prep season, especially with PARCC right around the corner. Apparently the monthly iStation test, the three times a year NWEA/MAP test and the curriculum's unit tests are not enough to inform me as a teacher who in my class needs help. (Never mind the fact that as a teacher, I can tell you who is struggling with what simply by reading with them or working through a math problem with them.) Now, they need to prove their proficiency on the PARCC test. Whatever. I normally don't care. I don't like standardized tests, and I've written before about how the time we spend testing (and prepping) for standardized tests could be better spent elsewhere. But, I don't normally feel as resentful of the tests as I do with PARCC.
This is only my second year administering the PARCC, as I was homeschooling and teaching overseas when Common Core and PARCC came into fruition. (And let me say I'm actually a fan of the idea behind a common set of standards and a common test, I'm just not a fan of THIS test). This is also the first year I really looked deeply at the "proficiency report". I was astonished to realize, by using the NWEA to PARCC relationship scale, that the PARCC is set up so that students must be ahead of the pack in order to be considered "proficient".
The NWEA is a norm referenced test which allows us to compare our students to the thousands of other students who take the same test (My students at an international school in Morocco took the same test.) and see if they are doing better or worse than the average. PARCC is a standards based test which only tests if students can do exactly as they are asked, which as a side note wouldn't be a bad thing except that PARCC overtests certain standards (such as the ability to write an essay comparing and contrasting two texts or the ability to find one specific quote in a story that justifies your answer to a question) and undertests other standards (such as determining the point of view of the author or using text conventions).
Now, the word proficient means that someone is competent. It means they can do what we ask of them, but maybe not go above and beyond. It's equivalent to "average", but apparently not on the PARCC. According to the NWEA's website, in order for a student to be proficient on the PARCC, they have to be scoring in the 65th percentile or better in 2nd grade. By 8th grade, they have to be scoring in the 75th percentile. This means that only the top 1/3 to 1/4 of students will be considered "proficient". Let that sink in for a second, we are purposely telling the majority of our students that they are not proficient.
This means that the majority of students who score at the "average" score on NWEA/MAP will score "approaching proficiency" on PARCC. This, in my mind, changes "proficient" from meaning "average" to meaning "perfect" or at least "advanced". We are expecting perfection, or at least advanced skills, out of every students and then telling them that even if they achieve this, they're only average. How defeating is that? Additionally, this means that struggling students will never reach the "proficient" level. They will grow up their entire life feeling they aren't good enough.
Now I'm all for realistic goals and high expectations. I DO NOT believe in giving students gold stars just for showing up. I think that students need to be pushed to read harder and more challenging texts and to think critically in math. But I also believe in developmentally appropriate activities. The PARCC texts and questions are not developmentally appropriate. It's like asking a Kindergartener to read a chapter book. Just because a few Kindergarteners can read chapter books doesn't mean that everyone should be able to, or that they should be looked down on if they can't. And if our students don't score well on the PARCC, they will be told they aren't good enough. They aren't proficient.
And because I'm their teacher, if they aren't proficient, it's my fault. My evaluation will be linked to their scores. So we are expecting perfect students and perfect teachers. Gee, I wonder why morale is so low in our schools.
I'm not sure how to change the system without personally creating a more fair assessment, but I do feel if we all stand up and say this system makes no sense, then we can work towards a better future for our students. In the meantime, I have told my students that all I expect out of them is their personal best (especially since I won't see the scores for the test until they are no longer my student). I refuse to stress out my students (or myself) over a test that expects perfection out of 3rd graders.
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