Assessment

New Setback for PARCC as Another State Abandons Test

By Catherine Gewertz — January 14, 2019 | Corrected: January 15, 2019 3 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized how the Council of Chief State School Officers came to possess PARCC test questions. Before it disbanded, the PARCC consortium transferred the test content to the state superintendents’ group. The prior version also did not make clear that New Meridian manages a bank of test items that includes PARCC and other, newer test questions.

New Mexico has joined a long list of states that have abandoned the PARCC test, setting off yet another round of speculation that the exam will go the way of the dinosaur.

But PARCC’s overseers say they’ve got a plan to keep questions from the test—which was created with $180 million in federal money—in circulation.

PARCC, officially known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, is one of two assessments created to enable states to track and compare students’ progress in mastering the Common Core State Standards. In recent weeks, the testing program suffered two setbacks. A panel of New Jersey judges ruled Dec. 31 that the state must stop requiring students to pass PARCC in order to graduate from high school.

New Jersey had already announced that it wants to replace PARCC but probably won’t do so before the 2019-20 school year. The new twist created by the ruling is that the state can’t make diplomas contingent on passing the assessment.

What happened in New Mexico, however, was a fresh blow to PARCC’s pocketbook: By signing an executive order on Jan. 3, the state’s new Democratic governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, made good on a campaign promise to dump the exam. She instructed the state education department to find a new school test.

New Mexico will still administer the PARCC exam this spring, along with Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia. But it appears likely that by next spring, the only jurisdictions giving the full PARCC test will be the District of Columbia, Illinois, the schools managed by the U.S. Department of Defense, and some schools overseen by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

New Jersey and Maryland are planning to switch to other tests. Illinois will build an exam for 2021 that blends PARCC questions with items the state designs itself. Colorado and Louisiana already mix PARCC items into their own custom-built tests.

A Death Knell?

With the New Mexico news, some testing insiders were quick to write PARCC’s obituary. One longtime assessment designer, now retired, wrote in an email that with so little state support, the test is now “toast.”

But the blended approach is precisely what PARCC managers are staking their future on. In 2015, PARCC leaders dropped their all-or-nothing approach in favor of a model that lets states license pieces of the test.

It was a survival strategy. Dozens of states embraced the test in 2010 and 2011, as it was being designed, but one by one they abandoned it in the face of criticism about its length and cost and conservative opposition to the common core.

Smarter Balanced, the other common-core test developed by a consortium of states with federal funding, suffered a decline in participation, too, but not as steeply as PARCC did. Twelve states still give that exam in its full form; Smarter Balanced doesn’t allow states to buy just parts of its test.

In 2017, the PARCC consortium transferred its test questions to the Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents state education commissioners and played a central role in getting states to embrace the common core. PARCC chose a new organization, New Meridian, to manage licensing those test questions—and others it developed later—to states.

Arthur VanderVeen, New Meridian’s CEO, told Education Week that PARCC’s item bank is in no danger of going under. Contracts with states such as Louisiana, Colorado, and Illinois, for just some parts of the exam, are enough to keep the item bank afloat for at least a few years, he said. But he also noted that even in multiyear contracts, states may opt out each year, a provision meant to recognize the fluctuations in states’ budgets.

Licensing fees cover the cost of maintaining the item bank, including the crucial task of weeding out older questions and designing new items to replace them. For security reasons, test questions have a limited shelf life and must be refreshed periodically.

The New Jersey court ruling has created uncertainty about how soon that state will drop the test. The three-judge panel of the Superior Court’s appellate division delayed the effect of its ruling for 30 days to give the Garden State time to find a solution to the issue that sparked the underlying lawsuit.

The problem with the use of PARCC in New Jersey arose from rules, issued by the state education department in 2016, that made PARCC one of its graduation requirements.

New Jersey law requires “11th grade pupils” to take a single exit exam. But PARCC is two tests: one in math and one in English, and neither is tied to 11th grade. Students take the English 10 exam at the end of 10th grade, and Algebra 1 whenever they complete that course.

A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2019 edition of Education Week as New Setback for PARCC as Another State Abandons Test

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