By Brittany Vetter
On July 7, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will conclude the five public hearings it is hosting before deciding whether to replace MCAS with PARCC next fall. Fall is also when I will discuss the concept of defying the odds with my new class of sixth graders. We will share a tale of Chelsea and Newton, two cities that are just 15 miles apart. We will look at the average income in each city, high school graduation rates, and percentage of residents with a college degree. Invariably, my students are astounded by the disparities they see. When asked to consider causes, they talk about the quality of education and access to resources such as reading materials. They mention presence of a parent who can provide homework support and of family members who have gone to college. Even as sixth graders, they recognize that these are all interrelated and represent a cycle that can be hard to break.
We will then look at some of the Excel Academy's eighth grade MCAS scores. Eighth graders at Excel schools, which are located in East Boston and Chelsea, have earned scores higher than those of students in Newton. Our students have consistently proven that it's possible for kids in low-income neighborhoods to achieve at high levels.
I then stress to my sixth graders that they will have to work extra-hard to achieve beyond what others might expect of them. I emphasize that our only option is to defy the odds and gain access to opportunities that will help change the system from within.
Holding our schools and teachers accountable for such trajectory-changing results says that we not only believe in their possibility but in fact demand it for all of our students regardless of the neighborhood in which they live.
This year, Excel Academy schools opted to administer the PARCC assessments. When the English department first examined some of the PARCC items, I was unsure if my students would be able to reach the required level. The multiple choice questions were highly nuanced, and the essay questions had multiple layers that went beyond what was required from students in previous years. As a team of teachers, we set out to give it our best shot. We revised our unit assessments to include questions that mirrored PARCC's emphasis on supporting multiple choice answers with evidence, and we engaged in discussions about how to build our students' ability to write in a variety of genres. Initially, test averages were lower overall. But as students collaboratively corrected their missed questions and became familiar with the new level of expectations, they rose to the occasion, and their test scores began to improve.
What's more, PARCC's alignment with Common Core has upped the rigor of my course. In the process, I discovered that Jose had a real gift for writing engaging dialogue, while Estefania could effectively integrate information from multiple sources. All of my students can now analyze how an author's choices led to a specific purpose in her writing and compare the choices of two different authors. The PARCC's emphasis on textual evidence led to much richer student discussions in my classroom, pushing me to recognize the level of thinking of which my sixth graders are truly capable. At end of the school year, my students surpassed my expectations.
This is not to say that PARCC is perfect. The consortium needs to continue to solicit teacher feedback on the wording of questions and to determine how to score the assessment in a way that will measure students' growth over time. This year we took the Performance Based Assessment in March and the End of Year Assessment in May. I'm excited that the consortium has decided to condense the two testing windows in response to concerns over testing time. This signals to me that PARCC is open to the feedback that teachers are providing and will continue to refine the assessment to meet the needs of students, teachers, schools, and communities.
Every teacher would agree that standardized tests are imperfect measures of the complex output that is students' growth as learners and people. However, without the data that is provided by these assessments, we would have no method for seeing how our students stack up and where to revise our approach. It's my job as a teacher to lead my students in the academic growth that will open up a life of options. I believe in my students. I believe in my fellow teachers. And I believe that PARCC is a step in the right direction for measuring whether we are delivering on the promise of helping our students to defy the odds.
Brittany Vetter is a sixth grade English teacher at Excel Academy in Chelsea and a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.