Another standardized test – this one called PARCC! But, here’s what’s different

PARCC could improve learning through personalized instruction. Pencil image via www.shutterstock.com

Like many 10 year olds, my daughter Zoe was anxious before taking her standardized test.

Zoe is also competitive and wants to score well on all tests. We talked. This exam, I explained, is not about her.

Zoe was taking the test called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers PARCC, which is the newest way to assess how well the school is preparing students like Zoe with critical literacy and numeracy skills.

It also helps provide information to teachers about what part of students’ academic work needs more attention and to personalize their instruction.

As a parent, it provides me helpful information as well. Zoe wants to be a wildlife zoologist. While it might change tomorrow, I want to know whether Zoe’s literacy and numeracy skills will enable her to complete the college degree she needs to pursue a science career.

PARCC could help with college readiness

PARCC is one of two new national standardized tests that most states are choosing to adopt to improve literacy and math skills.

As an educator and a parent, I am aware of the backlash to PARCC and standardized testing in general. But, I believe with modifications and more state control over the process, there are significant reasons to adopt and invest in PARCC testing.

As a co-founder of the Massachusetts Institute for College and Career Readiness and a researcher investigating the role of personalized career and education plans on academic outcomes, I have spent over 15 years, primarily in urban schools, investigating ways to improve students’ college and career readiness skills.

When it comes to standardized testing, I have witnessed the good, the bad, and the ugly effects of No Child Left Behind.

In principle, PARCC should help youth know whether they are developing the skills needed to enter and succeed in a two or four-year certification or a degree program. Successful college graduates earn higher wages which supports the tax base and home ownership.

I believe PARCC could contribute both towards, “good dollars” and “make sense.” Here are some of my reasons.

Why support PARCC

My first reason is because PARCC will provide the data that teachers could use effectively to modify teaching and meet individual student’s learning needs.

Economist Raj Chetty found that when fourth grade children have high-quality teachers, they are more likely to enter college and get higher paying jobs.

What is more, Chetty also estimates tremendous benefits to future life outcomes for children if we devote resources to bringing the lowest performing teachers up to acceptable standards.

PARCC could help improve teaching. Teacher image via www.shutterstock.com

With modified teaching, students can show test score gains in subsequent testing. The important thing here is not to use test scores as a way to attack teachers and close schools, but improve the practice of teaching.

As a homeowner, knowing that my local schools are offering high-quality instruction provides me with a sense of comfort that my property tax dollars are being used effectively.

Improving standardized test scores is also an important part of the “college and career readiness” agenda. Current college graduation rates are falling way below expectations.

The open data system of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts shows on average only 50% of the students in our suburban, higher-income communities complete a two or four-year college degree.

For many families, this translates to a situation of an increased student debt, but without the necessary degree that would help find a high-paying job to pay it off.

As a homeowner, this does not provide me with comfort.

US lagging on international academic indicators

So, my second reason for embracing PARCC is the wide academic skills gap found between states that have historically been able to set their own academic standards. PARCC assumes that developing literacy and numeracy skills should be the same for all 50 states.

The National Assessment of Educational Performance (NAEP) demonstrates wide disparity in test scores between states. The results further show that only Massachusetts and Connecticut have NAEP scores that compare favorably with other high-performing economies.

Business leaders want to start companies in countries and communities with high-skilled workers. NAEP scores and college completion rates offer companies an indication of how many adults possess the skills needed to support their industry needs.

US test scores fall below other leading economies. Girl image via www.shutterstock.com

However, business leaders in Massachusetts are concerned that PARCC does not set the learning bar high enough. Our highest performing students are not performing as well on NAEP as the top performing students in other leading countries.

And, while Massachusetts still has NAEP scores that are higher than countries like Germany, the rate of increase in their scores over the past few testing cycles indicates that they will likely surpass Massachusetts in the near future.

From the perspective of business leaders in Massachusetts, in order to continue attracting new venture capital for biotechnology and other technology supported manufacturing businesses, it is critical that Massachusetts demonstrate that there is a talented workforce available.

Many kids are placed in remedial courses

A third reason to invest in PARCC is to reduce the number of students needing to take “remedial” courses in college. If the test is effective, students who do well on PARCC should do well on SAT/ACT exams and college placement tests, thereby reducing the number of students completing remedial courses.

In their annual Condition of Education in the Commonwealth report, the Rennie Center on Education Research and Policy reports that 35% of high school graduates entering college were placed in remedial courses.

Even though many students pass their high school classes, more often than not they do not possess the skills needed to pass college entrance assessments like the Accuplacer, that test knowledge of math, reading and writing.

This not only costs tax-payers who pay for the additional college instructors but seriously impacts student’s likelihood of completing college.

Imagine a two or four-year degree as a mountain that students need to climb to receive their degree. And the number of remedial classes as the size of the hole they need to dig themselves out of before they can begin the climb.

As a homeowner, the number of remedial courses offered in college is a problem because it indicates that the tax dollars that were used to support my local high school did not prepare students with the skills needed to take college level classes.

As a parent of a college student, this means I am paying three times for the same set of literacy and numeracy skills - once through my property tax dollars to support my local schools, once through state-generated tax dollars supporting our public colleges and once through tuition dollars (ie, parent loans) to complete the remedial courses.

This is not comforting.

I do have one last reason for embracing PARCC that is completely selfish. This is the letter Zoe left for me when I returned home after her first day of PARCC:

Dear Popi:

Thank you for helping me not stress tooooo much about the PARCC test. I would have failed without you. And it’s not just the PARCC test, whenever there is a big test you help me not stress too much. You are the best Popi ever. You make the best waffles and best coffee cake and cinnamon rolls. That’s not the point. The point is I love you soooo much.

PARCC is not the biggest test my daughter will face in her lifetime. I can only hope that she rises to those tests they way she has for PARCC. And that is a comforting thought, though not as much as receiving her wonderful note.

Love you toooo Zoe.

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