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What You Didn't Know About the PARCC

A NJ education blogger and mother of four argues the controversial assessments are doing more to prepare kids for college than previous standardized tests.


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For years, New Jersey parents confidently sent their kids to school, certain they’d be well prepared for post-high school success. After all, the annual standardized assessment results parents received each fall tended to reflect adequate—even superior—academic growth. Six years ago, for example, New Jerseyans boasted that 63 percent of all third graders were proficient or advanced in reading and 79 percent in math.

But suddenly everything changed. Parents, particularly those in higher-income suburbs, were nose-to-nose with new assessments called PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) that challenged their perceptions of school quality and student growth. Case in point: Last year just 47 percent of third graders were proficient in reading and 52 percent in math. These scores are consistent with other highly-regarded assessments of student proficiency.

The most recent results from an international test called PISA placed the US 38th of 71 advanced industrial nations in math and 24th in science. The 2015 results from a national test called NAEP (considered the gold standard for assessing student growth) showed 64 percent of American fourth graders and 66 percent of eighth graders were not proficient in reading.

This gap between traditional coursework and real-life preparedness is one reason why 60 percent of all US college students must take non-credit-bearing remedial coursework before embarking on college-level work. In this case, both the parents and kids pay the price, depending on who takes out the loans. Forty six percent of first-time NJ college students require remedial course work, according to The Hechinger Report.

Does your kid get straight As? Don’t put too much stock in that. A recent study that’ll be the subject of a chapter in Measuring Success: Testing, Grades and the Future of College Admissions (to be published in 2018 by Johns Hopkins University Press) finds that “nearly half of America’s Class of 2016 are A students. Meanwhile, their average SAT score fell from 1,026 to 1,002 on a 1,600-point scale—suggesting that those As on report cards might be fool’s gold.”

How We Got to the PARCC

But there’s a powerful incentive for states to maintain unchallenging course content and assessments; after all, poor outcomes make the state’s education system look bad. And so in 2008, in response to the country’s laggardly pace, a group of education historians and scholars under the auspices of the National Governor’s Association tackled the shortcomings of what kids learn in school. The result was the Common Core.

New Jersey adopted the Common Core in 2010, which replaces old-timey rote memorization with a new emphasis on conceptual understanding and critical thinking. Last year, NJ made a few minor tweaks and changed the name to the New Jersey Student Learning Standards.

We’ve finally caught up with the world’s swift pace and our children are learning appropriate material. Cause for celebration? Not so fast: New course content requires new assessments.

New Jersey decided to maintain the collaborative approach of the Common Core and work with other states to develop new assessments aligned with the updated course content. Two consortia were established: one called Smarter, Balanced and the other called PARCC. Both offer annual tests that assess student growth in reading and math.

New Jersey went with PARCC.  After a pilot year in 2014, the tests were administered statewide. Of course, it was rocky, just like the first year of any new testing regimen, as school staff hustled to amplify bandwidth for computer-based tests and familiarize themselves with different protocols. But the next year was smoother (especially after PARCC cut the testing time), and the next year was smoother still.  

Examining Opposition to the PARCC

The kids are alright. It’s the adults with the problem, and that’s the engine that drives the propaganda. A loud and largely suburban cadre view PARCC as the Jersey Godzilla, rampaging through schools on a quest to shred children’s self-esteem, scar teachers’ tenure prospects and usurp valuable instructional time. This caricature is promoted by some teacher union leaders and their political allies, who’ve encouraged parents to boycott the test or “opt out.”

Why? The answer is simple: The opposition to PARCC is based on what’s best for adults, not what’s best for kids. PARCC raises the bar for instruction and unveils the pretense that our kids are adequately prepared for college and careers. High school diplomas for kids without special needs are currently contingent on passing tenth grade English and Algebra 1, and the PARCC is even higher stakes for teachers. That’s because under the state’s tenure and teacher evaluation reform law, a small portion of student outcomes are tied to evaluations for teachers of tested subjects.

So, let’s take a deep breath and look clearly and honestly at the new annual assessments.

First, we have to administer standardized tests every year by federal law. Second, we can’t use our old tests—the ASK for third through eighth graders and the HSPA for high schoolers—because they are unaligned with the Common Core. And they were too easy, although results conveniently jibed with political incentives to advertise that our schools were just fine. But here’s a fact: Back in 2008, Governor Jon Corzine’s Commissioner of Education Lucille Davy called the HSPA, the high school diploma qualifying exam, “a middle school level test.”

Those opposed to the PARCC claim it’s more expensive than ASK and HSPA (it’s cheaper); that PARCC disadvantages kids without computers at home (Newark and Camden report no such trend); that PARCC eats up instructional time (no more than any other standardized test); that PARCC isn’t scientifically validated (yes, it is, by research institutions and education organizations including the National Network of State Teachers of the Year).

But not to worry. Each year, as students are exposed to the higher-order thinking skills now embedded in instruction, scores go up, an indication that they’re learning what they need to succeed in a rapidly-changing world. Each year opt-out rates go down, an indication that the initial hullabaloo over change—the nemesis of every bureaucratic institution—is abating.

Woodrow Wilson once quipped that “moving a graveyard is easier than changing a school.” But to its credit, New Jersey made that difficult change. And as long as we set the educational needs of children above the fears and egos of adults, we’ll be alright.

Laura Waters writes about education politics and policy for a range of publications. She’s a mother of four and served on the Lawrence Township Board of Education for 12 years, including nine as president. The views expressed here are her own.

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