What’s wrong with PARCC, anyway?

I don’t know how many of you have attempted to take the sample standardized tests offered by PARCC online, an acronym for the Common Core testing monster that has invaded our schools and turned the learning process into a living nightmare. If you haven’t, you should. Aside from the fact that Pearson appears to be “monitoring” children as they test, or that the test itself was designed by corporate business looking to make a buck (and there are many other shady issues where that’s concerned that I won’t get into here) there are monumental problems with the test itself.

I chose to take the sample tests for four reasons: 1) I wanted to be informed 2) I wanted to see for myself exactly why this standardized test in particular is so damaging 3) I wanted to completely understand beyond a shadow of a doubt what I’m standing up against 4) I wanted to protect my child’s right to a well-rounded education … and her constitutional right to her privacy.

The only sample tests I managed to gain access to were the 4th and 7th grade levels. The reading sample consists of 30 multiple choice questions and three essays. I didn’t even attempt to try the math samples. Even I know those would have kicked my butt.

So let’s talk 7th grade reading. Remember, this is only the sample which is available to the public.

First, I was asked to read around ten paragraphs from the novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, after which I was given multiple choice questions. One such question asked me to identify the theme of these ten paragraphs. Keep in mind, it was such a ridiculously short excerpt, it was laughable that anybody would think students could gain true insight into the work.

Now, let me just add for clarity’s sake– I taught English literature for quite a number of years; not once did I ask my students to identify the theme of a handful of paragraphs from a novel they had never been exposed to until the day of the test. That in and of itself is stupidity in the making. And sadly, the students will check the bubbles while never truly experiencing the sadly beautiful tale of Edmond, Dantes, and Mercedes. They will never know the story was set in France during the Bourbon Restoration or the rich history surrounding the novel with Napoleon’s return to power during the Hundred Days period. Why? Because they have only ten measly paragraphs at their disposal for which they are to find a theme. What a shame that the historical significance of a great work is flushed down the toilet by a standardized test.

Second, I was asked to read at excerpt from a play, the title of which has slipped my mind simply because it held no meaning for me. I’d never heard of it, and the reading itself was confusing as the excerpt again was pulled right out of the middle of an entire work that needed to be read as a whole. I read the excerpt three times and still didn’t understand its ending. Again, I ask why? I’ll tell you why: continuity is a vital element in the learning process. Apparently . . . not so important to standardized test writers.

I could go on about the other readings, but I won’t. It’s more of the same. So let’s discuss the next disturbing element. The questions.

Each multiple choice question contained 4 possible answers. Although these are not the exact questions, these are typical of the questions found in the sample.

“In paragraph 2 of the previous reading, what does the word ‘scale’ mean?”

a) to run quickly   b) to sleep until noon  c) to climb the flat surface of a wall   d) to fly in an airplane

“Which part of the sentence clues you to its meaning from the context in which the word appears?”

a) “… scrabbling up the rough surface in record time.

b) “And she was livid, too!”

c) “… as he stretched to his full length.”

d) “… until the sun set behind them.”

I find two distinct problems with these questions. First and foremost, the students are told exactly where to find the answers. As if they aren’t intelligent enough to skim the very “short” excerpts themselves to find the vocabulary words. This method was repetitive throughout the test. After a time, I realized that I didn’t have to read very much of the excerpt at all to find the correct answers. And so, I never really knew the context of any of the readings. Our children, too, will manage to figure that out. There will be a lot of skimming for answers with no real understanding of any of the passages. And how, pray tell, does this equal learning?  It teaches one thing: to fudge, to cut corners, to take the easiest possible road. And the students will not gain a single piece of knowledge in the taking of this test. Appalling.

I also take issue with the fact that the right answers were so blatantly obvious as opposed to the other three. Am I clear?

Now, I must view this dilemma from the opposite end of the spectrum. We do have children in our schools who will struggle with this test. Answers won’t be blatantly obvious to this set of students, and they will feel frustrated and denigrated and worthless. They will enter the testing arena with fear in their little hearts over whether their score will make or break their favorite teacher’s evaluation. Bottom line…  these tests are not created to benefit the test takers.

Unfortunately, students have become a commodity for schools these days. They need them. They ask “What can our students do for this school? How can we ensure that they will make us look proficient? Meet AYP? Receive high evaluation marks? It literally sickens me when I think of this role reversal in our education system. No longer are public schools designed for the benefit of nurturing and guiding young minds. Of fueling curiosity with knowledge. No longer are teachers allowed to meet their students where they need to be met, push the ones that need a little push, fall back and walk hand in hand with the ones who need to catch up. No. Standardized tests have made sure of it.

I highly encourage any parent still on the fence to make a visit to the PARCC site. Take the test for yourself. And then, take a stand for New Mexico’s children.

A word about ~The Cadence~

I recently came a across a little note I had written about my very first novel, a YA supernatural romance released in 2012:

The idea for this book was inspired…by a shower. If I had to guess, I would imagine a majority of the best ideas come to people while in the shower. This is just an observation on my part. After all, a nice long shower provides a good amount of time for thinking. I’ve even written a few songs in there.

I like my showers pretty hot. I stay under that steamy water much longer than I should. It’s always been one of my favorite perks. That…and sleeping.

So—it was in the shower one Saturday morning in 2007, that Emma King entered my world and took me on the ride of my life! She can enjoy the cascading waters of a hot shower far beyond any level I ever could—except—in my imagination. I have to be honest—I’m a bit jealous of Emma. But I am also grateful that I had the privilege of taking this awesome journey with her.

Emma had a story to tell, and her only request of me was to put it down on paper. So, I acquiesced, and our story unfolded. I say our story, because I’ve learned as an author that sometimes you lead, and sometimes, you follow a character wherever she chooses to go. I’ve surprised myself in rereads more than once. I’ll slave over a chapter into the late hours. In the morning, I’ll read a section and say to myself: “Did I really write that?”

Personally, I think Emma did a lot of the writing while I was asleep.

Writing is ninety-five percent thinking, which takes me back to the shower. Hot water seems to get my creative juices flowing. Before I knew it, I had a menagerie of characters dancing around inside my head. Pastor(the Spanish pronunciation) Sabrina, Courtney, who is named for my sister, Ben King, Erik: each one unique and beautiful.

My ideas for the Circle, the Cadence, the desired unity, and the act of sacrifice predominantly stem from my faith. When I started this journey, I did not have a clear intention of making the book spiritual, and I would not label it as such by any means. But inevitably, as a Christian, my faith tends to permeate whatever I do. It can’t be helped. So little pieces of it sprinkle the book here and there, even if only subtly.

Each character is dear to me in a very special way. Emma is nothing like I was in high school. She’s reserved and cautious and always thinks before she acts. She’s not looking for any kind intimate relationship when Gage enters her life. I have always admired people like her. She’s independent, sure of herself, logical, and fairly content with her lot in life. Even though Emma struggles with her extra sensory touch ability, she has learned to cope, and for the most part, she’s happy. Like I said, I was nothing like Emma. In fact, I was more like Ginger:  boy crazy and all over the map. I’ll admit it, I had my share of crushes and I kissed my share of hotties. I regret most of that, which is why Emma is so keenly aware of what she wants and what she doesn’t. If I had known back in junior high and high school what I know now, I would have been Emma. It’s funny how it takes being an old married lady before you figure that out.

Gage Parmer is largely based on my own husband and my son’s personalities:  quiet, reserved, observant, indescribably handsome, and virtually untouchable. He makes up his mind about something and he sticks to it. Gage was a very intricately designed character. I had to create someone who lacked emotions and still held a kind of passion that drew my readers in as much as Emma was drawn to him. His relationship with Emma had to reach intimate depths without ever exchanging a kiss. For them, simple touches and verbal encounters superseded every other form of intimacy. It was a difficult task, but in the end, I hope I achieved the desired effect.

One of my favorite characters to develop was Jay. Good looking, built, athletic, witty, and sensitive rolled into one neat little package. Those piercing blue eyes were a must for my guy with the extra vision sense. Very few girls can resist him, and although he is not necessarily a charmer, his very presence exudes charm. His past life is an important element that has great impact on who he is and the decisions he makes in this book. My goal in developing his relationship with Emma was to make it something that almost crossed a line into physical intimacy, but never did. They are so close that it’s surprising they never feel more for each other. This is a part of their bond that can’t be described. I, as the author and creator of this work cannot explain it outside of my own head. But it has to be there.

Developing Alexix Deveroux was extremely enjoyable. In the end, my goal was to create a villainess that was not a stock character, but one who had depth and personality and a sincere motive for her evil escapades. My first run-through with this character resulted in a baddie who was superficial and unoriginal, so I backed up and started over. She plays a background character for the most part, but her role is essential, for she is representative of the Cadence. Her presence has to exhibit the force of every Cadence member. So I took Alexis and transformed her into that very essence. I’m giddily happy with the end result.

The motives and the purpose of the Cadence and the Circles evolved from one rewrite to the next until they became what you see today.  The Cadence is a force to be reckoned with, but as it turns out, so is Emma King. And I have a feeling that if my fans stick with me, they haven’t seen the last of Emma and her Circle.

Writing this book was the journey of a lifetime. It reconnected me with old friends and introduced me to new ones. It gave me a confidence in my writing ability and an excitement about what is to come in my career as an author. It educated me on the editing and publishing process and opened up a realm of possibilities for future characters and future projects. By the end of my first novel, I was exhausted, but I was also elated. It totally was worth it.

Casey Hays
2012