PARCC: Pearson’s Weapon of Choice

By John Wodnick

For over twenty years, I’ve taught high school English, and I’ve always tried to make my classroom a place where students might experience the joy of intellectual exploration and discovery.  I teach literature because I have felt the transformative power of great novels, plays and poems on my own consciousness, and I’m eager to give young students that same inspiring experience.  Such experiences are slowly but surely being rooted out of our current educational system, mainly because they’re difficult to measure, and the PARCC is just the latest and most potent weapon yet designed to eliminate them, mainly because they can’t be monetized.


Taking the PARCC on Sunday here in Montclair in the company of many other thoughtful adults, I experienced the confining and artificial nature of trying to read literature closely in the context of standardized multiple-choice testing.  What I figured out in the course of this experience is that the PARCC’s main value is to create more market share for itself.  It certainly isn’t to inspire in students any great love of literature, or to get them to think very deeply about the world they live in.  This is because it is a measurement tool, and not an educational tool, and the manic desire to measure every aspect of learning is, sadly and ironically, depriving students of much of what makes learning valuable.


This mania for measurement has political and economic consequences, as well as educational ones.  The more we measure a school’s success by its standardized test scores, the more we disempower the community that school serves, disempower the educators serving that community, and ultimately, harm the students we’re trying to serve.  Measuring educational success through test scores is anti-democratic, and anti-student, and anti-parent.  It fosters an attitude of distrust between administrators and teachers and pushes all decision-making authority upwards towards a centralized power, often one that resides outside the district.  You can read heartbreaking stories about how this process is playing out in Newark by reading Bob Braun’s Ledger, or by following the facebook page of the Newark Students’ Union, or even by reading the national coverage the situation in Newark recently received on


Those at the top of the power structure these tests help to preserve use many strategies to maintain their authority.  Questions are perceived as threats, and these threats are eliminated insidiously, by reframing the debate in ways that marginalize them.  Skeptics about the value of standardized tests are labeled as being against academic rigor.  Those who wish to maintain democratic control over their local districts are dismissed as rabble-rousing radicals.  Marketers learned these tricks long ago; politicians understand them.  They are very powerful and very effective– they just aren’t all that worthwhile if your goal is to create profound learning experiences that make great classrooms and great teachers memorable to real individual students.  In seeking to root out mostly mythical bad teachers, those who use tests to control education are also rooting out greatness, risk-taking, adventure, and the inspiring experience of discovery.  They are enforcing mediocrity for the sake of making outcomes easy to measure.  Tests imposed from above are self-perpetuating and self-justifying devices of social control.  Why must we test?  Because we need to make sure students are doing well on tests.  This is not education.  But it does ensure that gullible districts who think that only measurable outcomes matter will become great customers for the makers of the PARCC.


Don’t believe that this is about profits?  Don’t take it from me– here’s Glen Moreno, Chairman of Pearson, quoted directly from Pearson’s own 2013 annual report: “As the world’s leading learning company we are in an increasingly strong position to take advantage of this demand and deliver products and services that measurably improve learning outcomes for our customers and learners. I am also confident that this will positively impact shareholder value.” Measurably improving learning outcomes means testing testing testing, and that means positively impacting shareholder value.


Ultimately, what the designers of the PARCC are proposing is to replace many hours of valuable class time with many hours of oppressive testing.  They are eliminating countless hours where students might be encouraged to confront deep questions about their own existence or discuss with peers the social and political issues raised by the literature they’re grappling with together, and replacing them not only with hours spent on the tests themselves, but also hours spent on preparations for those tests.  This deprives students of crucial educational experiences, and makes it more and more difficult to teach them well.


PARCC does this by seeking to narrowly redefine educational success for all classrooms and all districts as success on this one test.  Teachers who wish to inspire, to connect, to move their students forward in terms of their relationships with their communities and their understanding of their place in the universe are looked on with suspicion while those who can develop flashy ways to drill students into mastery of relatively simple skills are lionized.  What does not immediately and obviously improve test scores is scrutinized, while any classroom activity that serves those scores is glorified.  We have to ask– who is served by this?  Are students served by this, or are the test-makers?  Jersey Jazzman, a favorite blogger of mine, has a pretty thorough answer here.


So, if students’ mastery of PARCC-imposed skills is not a true measure of a successful school, or a successful education, what is?  Schools that are truly democratic in nature help students imagine a better future not only for themselves but for their larger community, and the education they offer favors critical engagement and inspiration.  A powerful democratic education involves experiences of discovery in collaboration with classmates, a celebration of creativity and insight achieved through the mastery of coherent subjects explored and examined with autonomous, trusted and energized mentor teachers.  Contrast this vision with the world imagined by PARCC, which favors the mastery of discrete skills through constant individualized monitoring and submission to a testing regime it is uncivil to question, where success has only one measure– what is your number?


Which is the sort of education you want for your child?  Which do you think a curriculum driven by testing will achieve?


Delran EA Knocks it Out of the PARCC!

The Delran Education Association has published a phenomenal statement about their opposition to standardized testing and the damages that are being wrought upon the New Jersey public schools. From an analysis of why they oppose high stakes testing, to a history of the testing movement, to the negative effects this has on students and teachers, their annotated statement covers all the bases eloquently and forcefully.

Read the full statement here:

(November 11, 2014)

We applaud these brave teachers for making so bold and so necessary a public statement!


NJ Teachers Dream of Finland

At the NJEA convention this past Thursday, Pasi Sahlberg, an education policy advisor from Finland, delivered a keynote address that left the room full of New Jersey teachers both envious and hopeful. Finland has garnered international attention for its public education system for consistently scoring the highest on the international PISA tests – but high test scores are not the cause of envy. Instead, he spoke of the respect for children and educators that lies at the heart of their public school system, the focus on cooperation and the rejection of education as competition, and the true meaning of equity. He left the attendees feeling hopeful because he demonstrated what a society can do when it is determined to educate all children to the best of their abilities in the hopes that they will create good lives. For two good explanations of his speech, see the links below.

From teacherbiz:

From The Press of Atlantic City:

What’s Wrong with the Core? High School Reading

By Lynn Fedele

As a high school English teacher (not in Montclair), my professional life has been consumed by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and I am all too familiar with the high school level English Language Arts standards. As they are currently the law of the land, I am implementing them in my classroom, and so I witness them in action on a daily basis.

The CCSS were designed – not by practicing educators, by the way – from the top down, meaning that their creators started with the upper levels of the high school standards and then reversed engineered them down to the early elementary grades. That said, as I teach seniors, I am among the lucky; the CCSS are more closely aligned with what I have been teaching and are more developmentally appropriate for my students than many of the standards are for younger children. Nonetheless, they leave much to be desired.

In short, the standards are not out to make life-long readers and thinkers; they are out to train students to think about what other people have to say and to think more about how it is said than what it means.

Bradford 1

Last year, I was directed by my administration to list the standards on the board that my class was meant to cover that day, which is not an unusual practice. But I balked. Language arts skills are not taught in isolation; the skills overlap and are recursive in nature, meaning that we teach and re-teach the same skills at increasing levels of difficulty, often teaching several skills simultaneously. On any given day, students may read a passage, discuss it in groups, and then write about it. This involves reading skills, speaking and listening skills, language skills, and writing skills. So instead of taking five to ten minutes each period, every day, to write the standards, I created a few posters and hung them up over the board in my classroom. For the sake of space, I condensed them.

The 11-12 Reading Literature standards, in essence, call for this:

1) Cite strong and thorough textual evidence

2) Determine two or more central ideas of a text

3) Analyze the author’s choices in presentation

4) Determine the meaning of words and phrases in a text

5) Analyze the effectiveness of the structure of a text in creating meaning

6) Determine what the text implies rather than states

7) Analyze multiple interpretations of a story

8) [not applicable to Lit]

9) Analyze 18th, 19th, and 20th century American works

10) Read complex texts on grade level

And that’s when it became obvious to me that there is so much missing.

The standards seem reasonable when looked at in isolation. In other words, we can pick out any one standard and it will name something high school seniors should do: they should cite evidence; they should understand vocabulary. That’s fine.

So what’s missing from the Core?

First, what’s missing is context. The CCSS assume that each text is a discreet entity. Students are not required to think of their pre-existing knowledge in any given field in order to integrate new information. They are not required to do any background research to complement and extend understanding. They are not required to draw connections between disciplines – just never mind what a book might imply about history or philosophy. Even when comparing texts on the same subject, students do not need to understand why the texts differ – how historical/political/socioeconomic/race/sex/gender/culture/identity issues affect the content – just how they differ (one gives more detail; they have different forms; they use different narrative perspectives).

What else is missing? Oddly enough, for all they banter the word around, at grade 11-12, they are missing “rigor,” which becomes evident when aligned with Bloom’s Taxonomy. Bloom’s Taxonomy – a long-standing holistic learning model – categorizes and explains how children learn. In the cognitive area, there are six levels. The CCSS Reading Literature standards do not call upon the students to use the top two levels of critical thinking: Synthesis and Evaluation. It is in these two levels that students combine information into new, creative wholes and judge what they read and learn. These are the levels in which they challenge their own assumptions and use newly gained knowledge in creating something original. The standards, on the whole, stop at analysis, which is an important step in critical thinking, but not the top.

In essence, the CCSS are missing the reader. While students have to analyze how a text is structured, how its parts work together, how the author makes choices to get his/her point of view across, they have no personal interaction with meaning. They do not have to understand the work’s content as relevant to themselves or to the lives they live. They do not have to make judgments about what they read or bring the content into themselves on any level to complete the tasks outlined by the standards. No agreeing or disagreeing with an author – just explain how the text functions. In sum, no opinions necessary.

And lastly and sadly, readers, the standards suppose, never read for enjoyment.

So, why omit all the best stuff? Because the best aspects of reading and interacting with literature simply cannot be measured on a standardized test.