Big Things You Need to Know Now About the PARCC and Smarter Balanced Tests

By Catherine Gewertz — January 17, 2019 4 min read
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A lot has changed with the PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests since they were first launched in 2015. Here are a few things you need to know about them to keep your cocktail party conversation scintillating and accurate. [wink-wink]

PARCC isn’t just a test now. It’s an item bank, too.

Q: That’s confusing. Whenever people I know talk about PARCC, they’re talking about a test. What’s an item bank?

A: Fair enough. Let me explain. PARCC did start out as a full-length test that students take at the end of the year. But the PARCC consortium changed its business model in 2015, recognizing that fewer states wanted that full-length test anymore. It decided to let states take a more-customized approach.

Under the revised model, states can now license the full PARCC exam, or just some individual questions. That allows them to build a test that’s a mixture of PARCC questions and questions they write themselves. In 2017, the states in the PARCC consortium hired a nonprofit called New Meridian to oversee that collection of 10,000-plus test questions—known as an “item bank.”

Q. Does that mean states are now giving a “partial PARCC” test?

A. Yes and no. A few states still give the full PARCC exam. A few others are licensing questions from the item bank that contains all of PARCC’s original content. But there’s an additional twist: New Meridian has developed test questions for the item bank, too. So some of those questions are also in circulation.

Q. Then can we still call these things “PARCC” tests?

A. That answer is a moving target. Right now, most of the questions in the New Meridian item bank were designed by the PARCC states. But by the spring of 2020, most items that states license will likely have been designed by New Meridian, in consultation with state departments of education and teachers.

Smarter Balanced is still a full-length test, and only a full-length test.

Q. Oh, so Smarter Balanced doesn’t let states use just some questions from its item bank?

A: No. Smarter Balanced stuck closer to its original model. It offers states two options: buy the full test by itself, or buy the full test plus a package of other resources, such as formative tools—exercises that are designed to support and gauge learning as it happens—and interim tests.

The PARCC consortium disbanded. The Smarter Balanced consortium still exists.

Q: Oh, man. I thought PARCC and Smarter Balanced were tests. Now I’m confused again. What are these consortia you’re talking about?

A: Sorry. Hang in there. You’re right; They are tests. But those tests got their names from the big groups of states that designed them.

Q: States? Wait, that rings a bell. Refresh my memory.

A: The U.S. Department of Education wanted to create tests that states should share to measure students’ mastery of the Common Core State Standards, which came out in 2010. The feds handed out $360 million in grants for that project. But they required that big groups of states band together to design the tests.

Two groups—um, consortia—of states won that money: The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, and the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. For reasons that are obvious when you start to run out of breath, they each got nicknames: PARCC and Smarter Balanced.

Q. But you never hear anyone say “consortium” anymore when they’re talking about PARCC and Smarter Balanced. They always mean tests.

A: Yeah, the consortia aren’t getting the attention they once did. From about 2011 to 2013, the testing world was obsessed with which states joined PARCC and which joined Smarter Balanced. Interest was so keen that EdWeek actually ran a regular feature online called “consortium watch,” with dozens of updates, and a map, tracking states’ shifting loyalties. At one point, 45 states and the District of Columbia planned to use one of those federally funded tests.

Eventually, the dust settled, and by the time the tests were ready to use in 2015, only about half the states used PARCC or Smarter Balanced. The rest chose tests from other designers. By 2017, only 20 states were using consortium tests. State membership in the two consortia declined, too.

Q. So do the consortia exist anymore? Aren’t PARCC and Smarter Balanced just tests?

A: Each group evolved differently. There is still a consortium of 12 Smarter Balanced states that stay in touch and share decisionmaking about test design and other business. All 12 administer the Smarter Balanced assessment.

There is no longer a PARCC consortium, though. It disbanded in 2017 after transferring all of its test questions—known as “PARCC content"—to the Council of Chief State School Officers, an organization that represents state school superintendents.

The only “PARCC” that still exists is in the form of test content: those legacy questions in the New Meridian item bank. This year, four states and the District of Columbia are giving tests that are 100 percent PARCC content, while two states license just some PARCC items for their tests.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.