Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Testing, testing ... 1-2-3

As we move toward the end of the administration of Round 1 of PARCC and take a breath of spring air before Round 2 begins in May, it may be a good opportunity to reflect on the bigger picture regarding the role of assessment in instruction. 
We know that good instruction and good assessment go hand in hand. Classroom assessments provide teachers with a measure of student proficiency, so they can adjust instruction moving forward.  They also provide parents and students with some measure of learning over a period of time. 
While there is significant and reasonable debate about the value of standardized testing, virtually no one believes there is too little of it. The question is can we design a state assessment mechanism to add a different perspective on student achievement without disrupting the instruction it is meant to support?
This is where PARCC comes in. This new assessment is a significant academic challenge, and we want our students to take on such tasks to prepare them for the road ahead. We are also expecting to receive useful data on student proficiency in the Common Core Standards areas of literacy and mathematics.  While there has been widespread unease about federal overreach, parental rights, and computer-based testing, the most commonly expressed concerns have been about the amount of testing in which students are engaged and the length of time devoted to it.

This is particularly true for high school students who already take a number of standardized tests for a variety of reasons. Students intending to pursue entry into a competitive college or university typically take the SAT and/or ACT, often multiple times. In preparation for that challenge, many will take the PSAT. Students opting for an open enrollment college usually take a placement exam like Accuplacer, and others with interest in a military career take the ASVAB (the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery).  

Students who are unsure of their future could take several of these tests. In addition, those seeking early college credit take Advanced Placement (AP) exams, and groups of students are randomly selected from time to time to take part in national and international comparison tests like NAEP and PISA. And these are just the major examples.

The New Jersey Department of Education made a recent decision to allow alternatives to PARCC to meet the state's graduation requirement for the Classes of 2016, 2017, and 2018. This makes sense as the redesigned SAT and PSAT and ACT Aspire are already Common Core-aligned, while Accuplacer is in the process of being aligned (ASVAB seems less certain).  

However, it raises a question. If these tests are acceptable to meet state graduation standards, why not amend the state's NCLB waiver to have PARCC become one of several alternatives to meet the 95% participation rate on Common Core-aligned tests as well?

Parents and students have multiple choices when it comes to selecting a learning environment: district schools, charter schools, choice schools, private schools, even home schooling. Why not provide high school students and their parents with choices to demonstrate Common Core proficiency instead of mandating that everyone take PARCC?

Here is some local data to support that position. Last year, 209 Newton High School students (10th, 11th and 12th graders) took the SAT.  198 of them (95%) scored above 400 on the Critical Reading section, and 194 (93%) scored above that level on the Math section. 400 is the minimum SAT score the state has set to meet the graduation testing requirements for the Classes of 2016, 2017, and 2018.  

Said another way, given our SAT participation rate of 72%, about two of every three students would have met the state's future graduation criteria on one Saturday morning without disrupting a school day.  Count me in as an advocate for a better approach.

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