PARCC Common-Core Test Gets Federal Approval

By Catherine Gewertz — January 23, 2018 4 min read
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The PARCC test has won an unusual nod of approval from the U.S. Department of Education: It got an unconditional thumbs-up as an assessment that complies with the federal rules governing how well tests measure mastery of states’ academic standards.

Sound obscure? Well, it is. But it’s also significant, because it means that one PARCC state (Yes, just one. More on that in a second.) has now won the official federal stamp of approval.

“This is really great news,” said Arthur VanderVeen, the CEO of New Meridian, the company that manages the PARCC consortium. “We think this confirms that the states that administer the PARCC test, or [use] its test content, are administering the highest quality assessment that’s available.”

Here’s the obscure part, with explanations and caveats:

Those of you who follow every tiny detail of assessment policy—heaven help you—will be embarrassingly familiar with the department’s “peer review” process. This is where the recent action about PARCC took place. In a letter dated Jan. 11, the U.S. Education Department concluded that Maryland’s use of PARCC in grades 3-8 and high school meets all the requirements in federal law.

A year ago, the department told Maryland that it needed more evidence that PARCC meets federal requirements in a number of areas, including whether the exam “measures the full breadth and depth” of its academic standards.

The Federal Review Process

The Education Department’s peer-review requirements focus heavily on how well a state’s assessment fully reflects its academic standards. All states must submit their assessments and standards for review periodically.

When they do that, it’s more common for them to receive ratings that fall short of complete approvals. They’re likely to get a “substantially meets requirements,” or “partially meets requirements.” (See recent examples of the department’s findings on Wisconsin and Wyoming when they submitted their use of the ACT college-entrance exam for peer review.)

Typically in those situations, the department asks states to provide more evidence in places where the tests fell short. For instance, department officials could ask for alignment studies that demonstrate the test sufficiently covers a state’s standards. Or it could ask for evidence of appropriate accommodations policies.

It can take rounds of back and forth, over months—and sometimes years—for states to submit sufficient evidence to win complete approval. And as insiders know, states just keep right on using those same tests with students while they’re seeking full approval from the department. Theoretically, the department can withhold Title I funds from states for using tests that don’t meet muster. But experts are hard-pressed to cite cases where that’s actually happened.

States that use the Smarter Balanced assessment have been going through peer review, and have gotten ratings of “substantially” meeting federal requirements, but none have yet received a “meets requirements” designation.

What’s Next for PARCC States

Maryland’s letter of approval is noteworthy because it confers on PARCC an official blessing for use in that state. It could also indicate a good chance that the five other states that use PARCC—Colorado, the District of Columbia, Illinois, New Jersey, and New Mexico—could get the same result when they go through peer review.

The most recent round of peer-review letters to those states, in January 2017, showed mixed results: Illinois’ use of PARCC got a “partially meets” requirements, and the other four states got a “substantially meets” requirements.

As they submit more evidence, in search of a “meets requirements” designation, they’re not that likely to stumble on the question of whether PARCC aligns to their academic standards, since all PARCC states use the common core, or a close cousin of it, said Scott Marion, the executive director of the Center for Assessment, which advises states on testing issues.

The PARCC states could stumble, though, over other key questions of peer review, such as their accommodations and whether they test all students, as required by federal law, Marion said.

VanderVeen also noted that PARCC states are moving toward a more flexible assessment model, in which they might incorporate some of PARCC’s content into their state testing regimens, as Louisiana and Massachusetts do, without using the whole exam. While that allows states to customize the test, it also means that full approval in peer review isn’t a lock, given each state’s unique use of the test.

The wonks and nerds among you can paw through the feds’ letters to PARCC states to see exactly where they fell short last year. You can see the department’s peer-review letters to all the states here, dating back to 2005. (Or not. Depending on your level of assessment wonkiness.)

For more stories about how the U.S. Department of Education reviews standards and assessments, see:

Federal Peer-Review of Tests Begins Again
U.S. Review of Standards, Tests, Enters New Phase

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