States keep dropping out of the Common Core testing consortium known as PARCC, but the faithful are carrying on.
Hundreds of teachers and administrators from across the country have gathered this week inside the windowless ballrooms of a Marriott in Arlington, Va., to reflect on how the first year of PARCC testing went in 2015 and to plan for how to help it go more smoothly in 2016.
They are members of the PARCC Educator Leader Cadre, a group that has played a key role in helping schools get ready for the math and reading exams during the past several years. They have had their own frustrations with the online exams, including technical glitches that interrupted students this spring. But as they come to terms with the backlash from politicians, parents and other educators — which has turned PARCC into a dirty word in some circles — many fundamentally believe that it is a smarter test than the old bubble tests and will drive stronger instruction.
“I’m in my 40th year in education and this has been one of the best transitions I’ve seen,” said Emil Carafa, the principal of an elementary school in a small district east of Allentown, N.J., who said teachers are now less likely to lecture from the front of the room than they used to be. Learning happens in small groups as students wrestle with problems, he said, practicing the kind of critical thinking that the new standards and the new test demand.
“The whole structure of the classroom has changed due to Common Core,” he said.
Not everyone shares Carafa’s rosy view.
The tests from PARCC — the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers — has come under fire for its length, for its technical glitches and for efforts by its test publisher, Pearson, to crack down on cheating via social media.
Some communities have come to see PARCC as a symbol of federal overreach (PARCC is one of two groups of states that got hundreds of millions of dollars to develop new tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards, but it is not a federal program), and some see it as emblematic of a destructive overemphasis on standardized testing in America’s schools.
The Common Core aims to create some amount of uniformity in terms of what children learn in the nation’s public schools, with an eye toward college and career readiness upon high school graduation. If students in all states were to take the same — or similar — exams, it also would allow for easier direct comparisons of student performance across the states. In 2010, more than two dozen states associated themselves with PARCC.
But fewer than half of the states originally part of PARCC — 11 states and the District of Columbia — were still on board when the online tests rolled out this spring. Since then, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Ohio all have dropped out and just seven states and the District plan to give the test in 2015-2016, raising questions about whether the consortium is in danger of completely falling apart.
PARCC spokesman David Connerty-Marin insisted that it is not. “Of course it is sustainable,” he said, pointing to the old New England Common Assessment Program, which functioned for years with just four states and 400,000 students. Though there are fewer states now shouldering the costs of the exams, PARCC has pledged not to raise the price of exams next year, Connerty-Marin said.
And even though PARCC has shrunk, he said, the nation’s testing landscape is still much different than it was in 2014, when each state gave different tests, making it difficult to compare achievement across state lines.
“A few states will come and go, but this is the new normal,” he said.
Ohio educators attended this week’s conference even though their state dropped PARCC two weeks ago.
“Very frustrating,” said Carole Katz, a longtime math teacher and math coordinator, who had poured many hours into reviewing questions and perfecting different versions of the exam to administer to different students. But Katz and other Ohioans said that the change that has been ushered in by the Common Core standards will persist.
“We’re changing the test, but we’re not changing the concepts behind it,” said Char Shryock, a 28-year veteran of education. “It’s very much a branding thing. The PARCC brand got corrupted.”
Shryock, the curriculum director for Ohio’s Bay Village schools on Lake Erie, said teachers have learned how to teach the Common Core standards and how to help their students wrestle with real-life problems.
In more schools now, staff meetings dwell on instruction instead of supply closet inventories. Even PTA meetings are changing, she said, focusing on what and how students are learning instead of on who is bringing what to the next bake sale.
She predicts those changes will stick as Ohio shifts to a new exam, even if Ohio educators will no longer be able to easily see how their students are performing compared to their peers in other states.
“It would have been nice to be able to do that,” she said.