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In Defense of High Quality Assessments: Testimony Against Arkansas SB1241~ Jennifer Garner

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Jennifer Garner is a veteran teacher at Lakeside High School where she teaches AP Language & Composition, English, and journalism. She is a National Board Certified Teacher and a Master Journalism Educator with a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where she focused her studies on student media law and censorship. In addition to teaching, Jennifer works as a consultant for the Southern Regional Education Board. Most recently, she helped to write the English courses for Literacy Ready, a course developed by SREB that prepares high school students to read and write about college-level texts in core subjects. She also is a reviewer for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). While she is involved in several projects outside of the classroom, she devotes most of her time to teaching, working with students, and sharing her enthusiasm for learning. She resides in Hot Springs, Ark., with her husband, son, and daughter.
Below is testimony provided by Jennifer Garner to the Arkansas State Senate Education Committee against SB1241.

I have been an educator for 23 years, and in that time, I have worked with a variety of frameworks, standards, and assessments I am in a unique position in that I have worked extensively with both the Arkansas frameworks and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the end of course state exams, and the PARCC exam. This experience gives me great insights into the differences in the standards and the exams. Yes, there is a tremendous difference in the rigor of our former End of Course State Exam and PARCC, but that rigor is needed. The Southern Regional Education Board, which wholeheartedly endorses Common Core and its assessments, has developed courses based on CCSS that also reflect that rigor. I was a writer for the first course called Literacy Ready, which is designed to help prepare high school seniors who don’t quite meet readiness standards. In these courses, we recognize that students will struggle with Common Core concepts and skills, but that struggle is beneficial. Just as the Common Core standards push students to achieve, similarly, the PARCC exam is intended to challenge students, as well. We don’t grow from stagnation; we grow from challenge.

A great deal of time and expertise has gone into the PARCC assessment. Test items have been reviewed extensively, taking into consideration how well they match the standards and how well they measure students’ skills. I can tell you from my experience as an item reviewer that each and every passage, stem, and answer is carefully reviewed by expert educators from around the country, including college professors, education officials, and classroom teachers,  many of whom are some of the top educators in our state and country. Arkansas was one of the first states to help develop this exam, largely because we have become a leader in progressive education reform. This bill would not only set us back considerably but would necessitate redoing years of work that has already been done, and been done well.

Common Core has impacted my teaching in many ways. I feel that my lessons and texts are richer and that my students, while they are struggling at times, overall tend to rise to the challenges of CCSS. I have more flexibility with the curriculum in my classroom. I am not “teaching to a test.” I am teaching skills that my students will take with them to college and the work force because the new aligned assessments measures skills, not content knowledge. In the classroom, I see students tackling difficult tasks yet succeeding with help. Some students are frustrated, but with continued encouragement and practice, they, too, are improving. I especially see this in my Literacy Ready course, where students’ ACT scores have gone up an average of four points.

Teachers and students already feel a great deal of stress to perform and meet achievement goals. Both educators and students are finally becoming comfortable with the Common Core standards. They now need time to become comfortable with the aligned assessments. Switching tests three times in three years will put even more pressure on teachers and students, as well as the state department of education. Creating a test that accurately and fairly assesses students from all backgrounds, levels, and needs is not an easy task. To do it well involves hundreds of people and millions of dollars. PARCC has the resources and the experts to create such an assessment. Putting an end to the PARCC assessment is fiscally and educationally unsound. We haven’t even given these new assessments a chance before we are already calling for its end. The test is already under way; why would we, after so much investment from our state, both in dollars and time, want to prohibit ever using them again?

In the classroom, teachers frequently monitor and adjust. That is the approach we should take to PARCC.  Let’s see what the outcome will be before deciding it doesn’t work. We need to reach out to parents and reassure them that their children should be the best that they can be, that their education should be rigorous yet fair, and that it should prepare them for college and their careers.