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Tough Choices for PARCC as States Drop Out

By Andrew Ujifusa — August 04, 2015 4 min read
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If you’re a fan of federally financed tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards, you’ve reached for the sad trombone several times this year. (Womp, womp ... ) That’s particularly true if you’re a fan of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers exam.

At its height, the testing consortium boasted 24 states, plus the District of Columbia, as members. After a couple of years of damaging political battles, PARCC now officially lists 12 member states and the District of Columbia. But three of those states no longer plan to give the test, and others could join them.

Laura Slover, the CEO of PARCC Inc., has publicly acknowledged the consortium’s challenges, including those connected to costs, as the numbers dwindle. Part of the promise of tests like PARCC under the common core is the economies of scale afforded to states through large testing consortia.

So is PARCC in a “death spiral,” as one Boston Globe opinion writer put it? Or does it have a good plan and good chances for survival?

Douglas J. McRae, a retired testing executive who’s worked at McGraw-Hill Education, among other places, noted that more important than making the financial numbers work for states “will be the political will to stay together.” PARCC is also thinking about how to spread its reach beyond state education departments.

In short, various factors are working for and against PARCC. It’s just unclear which ones will win out.

Crumbling Core of States

In the 2014-15 school year, according to an Education Week analysis of states’ testing plans, just 10 of the PARCC states and the District of Columbia actually gave the exam statewide; Massachusetts and New York did not. That number is slated to be smaller this coming year. How much smaller is still unknown. Here’s why:

• Three PARCC states from 2014-15, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Ohio, no longer plan to give the test because of budget reasons or votes by state school boards.

• Another one of the 10 states that gave the exam this past school year, Louisiana, is barred from using PARCC test items for a majority of its exam in 2015-16. It’s hard to categorize Louisiana as a PARCC or non-PARCC state, at least for now.

• In Massachusetts, there’s a serious push not to give PARCC at all in the coming school year, the Associated Press reported.

By this reckoning, just six states—Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Rhode Island—plus the District of Columbia appear certain to give PARCC in 2015-16.

There’s another transition at work, Mr. McRae said: The consortium is shifting away from the “heavy duty, test development” work and into a “maintenance and operations” mode. In other words, even though PARCC has to keep the bank of test items fresh in the years to come, he said, “the ongoing test development costs will be far less.”

It’s also not impossible, Mr. McRae said, that some states could decide to join, or rejoin, PARCC, especially if the political furor over the common core dies down.

As for Smarter Balanced, the other common-core testing consortium, its membership situation isn’t as dire as PARCC’s in total numbers—it officially lists 18 states. However, Maine, Missouri, and Wisconsin are all set to ditch Smarter Balanced this coming year after giving the test in 2014-15.

Challenges Loom

But a few factors might make things harder, not easier, for PARCC.

The maximum projected costs for PARCC—$24 to $25 per student—were based on 5.5 million to 7 million students taking the PARCC test in 2014-15. Recent K-12 enrollment figures for the six states and the District of Columbia that appear firmly committed to PARCC for the new school year add up to (neatly enough) just over 5.5 million students.

But PARCC tests are given only to students in grades 3-8 and some students in high school. So that means the total number of students taking the test in 2015-16 will be much lower than the 10 million students in grades 3-11 in states that were planning to give the test just over a year ago. The total number of eligible PARCC test-takers next year also appears to be lower than the 5.5 million student threshold used to calculate its maximum cost figures last year. How much lower isn’t certain.

In her June letter to the consortium’s allies, Ms. Slover said that PARCC is “confident we will maintain current competitive pricing into the future.” And in a July 10 email, PARCC spokesman David Connerty-Marin said, “The PARCC states have committed to not increasing the pricing (which is already well below what many of them were paying previously).”

Broadening the Market?

Mr. Connerty-Marin added that PARCC is not just thinking about how to add new member states, but also about seeking out private schools, Catholic schools, the Bureau of Indian Education, and other K-12 entities that may want to use its content.

But the prospect of adding private schools and other K-12 users as part of an effort to combat PARCC price hikes raises new questions:

• What would be the federal, state, or other enticements for private schools and the BIA to use PARCC, or at least some of its test items?

• Would private schools agree to align their curricula and instruction more closely with those of public schools, even though many parents send their children to private and Catholic schools precisely because they may not like what they see in or hear about public school classrooms?

• Would PARCC’s purpose and usefulness become cloudy if a hodgepodge of K-12 institutions used it, particularly since the consortium was created to be run by states?

Ultimately, Mr. McRae’s point about political willpower could be the key issue. Even if the prices for states end up rising dramatically, PARCC could survive if those states like the test enough and don’t care about any political fallout.

But if states decide they don’t like the test anymore or are feeling too much heat from those opposed to the common core or to PARCC, it does not matter how low the price is—PARCC will be in serious jeopardy.

A version of this article appeared in the August 05, 2015 edition of Education Week as PARCC Under Gun As States Drop Out

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