Why States Should Make PARCC the Foundation of New Exams

Why States Should Make PARCC the Foundation of New Exams
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In this photo taken Feb. 12, 2015, practice test books sit on a table in the Sixth grade English Language Arts and Social Studies classroom at Morgan Elementary School South in Stockport, Ohio. (AP Photo/Ty Wright)

RCEd Commentary

For countless parents and teachers, standardized testing has become a heated issue. The very mention of student assessments is enough to evoke anxiety for many, and it’s not hard to understand why. No Child Left Behind policies produced a wave of accountability requirements that many said resulted in over-testing.

As a consequence, many states have phased out their older assessments and have introduced high-quality exams that hone in on a child’s grasp of a subject and require more critical thinking skills, helping teachers and parents build on what’s working and provide support when needed.

As a teacher responsible for the mathematical education of dozens of students, high-quality data helps inform every facet of my instruction. My students are diverse learners and the specific data provided by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers allows me to provide targeted instruction that meets my students where they are, and takes them where they need to go. This is something we need in every classroom across the country.

In 2010, Massachusetts chose to join PARCC, a consortium of states, to build high-quality English language arts/literacy and mathematics tests. Despite spending two years test-driving the Common Core-tied assessments created by the consortium, the state never fully adopted the PARCC exams.

Last fall, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to develop a new hybrid end-of-year test that will build on the best elements of both PARCC and the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, the state’s own assessments. With continued input from educators and parents, the new exam promises to provide an invaluable tool to help all students achieve their full potential. 

Some have interpreted the decision to create a Massachusetts-specific assessment as a sign the Commonwealth was slowly moving away from the Common Core or the PARCC exam. Both claims are false.

“[The national media has] inaccurately described Massachusetts as ‘abandoning’ the Common Core and PARCC,” state Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester wrote in Politico. “We have not abandoned either one.”

Mounting evidence demonstrates that PARCC is the kind of assessment parents and teachers should want their kids to take. Last fall the National Network of State Teachers of the Year asked 23 award-winning educators to take the PARCC exam alongside five other tests and evaluate them using Evidence-Centered Design and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge index. The participants gave PARCC a strong endorsement.

The PARCC assessment outperformed the other tests by better reflecting the range of knowledge and skills students should master; aligned well with strong instructional practices teachers employ in their classrooms; measure top-performing students equally as well as low-performing students; and are both more rigorous and age-appropriate than states’ previous assessments.  

A two-year study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute came to a similar conclusion. Compared to the MCAS and the ACT Aspire assessments, PARCC demonstrated a stronger alignment to Massachusetts’ learning goals. In English language arts, the report notes, PARCC includes appropriately complex texts and requires a range of cognitive demand. In math, the exam is well matched to the learning content at each grade level.

Those are the qualities an educator or parent should want from an exam. The results provide an honest look at how well a child understands the material they are learning. That, in turn, allows teachers to tailor their lesson plans and instruction to meet students’ needs, instead of trying to interpret vague results and hoping for the best.

What’s more, the PARCC states adopted a policy that has been a longtime practice of our state -- regularly releasing content from its exam. Eight hundred items were released after testing was over last year and one-third of the exam items, rubrics, and examples of student work will be released again this year. This is a valuable asset to teachers because we are able to consider actual test items and can use backwards design to develop an appropriate learning course for students to ensure they are where they need to be at the end of the school year. This prevents teaching to the test: The skills that students must master to advance to the next grade level have been built into the curriculum and taught throughout the school year.

Perhaps most importantly, teachers in Massachusetts have been closely involved with the development of the PARCC assessment, which has opened the door for unprecedented collaboration. Helping shape the exam has fostered conversations among teachers that didn’t happen before, allowing us to share best practices and to build on each other’s successes to cultivate more effective instruction in our own classrooms. There is something powerful about educators learning from educators; we should do all we can to encourage it.

Massachusetts is moving in the right direction with its student assessments. Policymakers should refuse to let those who want to go backwards derail our progress. By continuing to build on the PARCC framework, I am confident that Massachusetts will create a test that helps students of all backgrounds get and stay on a path that prepares them to graduate high school ready for the next step, whatever it may be.

Now that Congress has passed -- and the president has signed into law -- the Every Student Succeeds Act, states finally have more flexibility when it comes to their state assessments and how they will measure whether students are on track for success after high school. I encourage other states to use the high-quality content and supports that the PARCC test provides.

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