Vail Daily column: Some thoughts on new tests
Editor’s note: This week’s column is co-authored with Dr. Eric Olsen, principal at Red Hill Elementary School in Gypsum.
Later this month and into December, Colorado will release the results of new tests students were given last spring called the PARCC exams, for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. PARCC is an interstate collaborative focused on developing assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards in English language arts and math. The Common Core is not without controversy. Its main purpose was to develop a set of more challenging and consistent expectations for students across the country. The PARCC test is a way of measuring progress against these higher expectations.
There will be a great deal written and talked about in terms of the PARCC test results over the next few weeks. To get a jump-start on the conversation, we’d like to offer five observations on the new tests.
• First, these tests were administered almost entirely on the computer and (as expected) across Colorado there were technical hiccups in this first administration. While we expect this to improve in the years to come, it was frustrating for students and staff who experienced multiple delays and disruptions during the test period. It will be difficult to gauge the impact of the testing frustration students experienced on the assessment results.
• The turnaround time for these results has been unacceptably slow. If we wanted to use them in a meaningful way to inform instruction and school-wide improvement, then we should have had the results back this summer. It is difficult for us to understand why a test where data is directly and electronically uploaded would actually take longer to turn around results.
A recent study noted that Colorado spends up to $78 million annually on assessments (inclusive of direct and indirect costs), much of this to the multi-national testing corporation, Pearson. For this level of investment, we expect better.
• These tests dramatically raise the bar in terms of expectations. As the Common Core is much more challenging than the previous Colorado standards, the PARCC tests are also much more difficult than the previous Colorado state tests.
In general, we think raising the bar is a good thing for all students. However, we are concerned the results from these tests will be misused and misinterpreted as (we expect) proficiency rates fall some 30 percent across the board. We want to clearly note that these drops in proficiency levels are not the result of sudden and dramatically lower performance — rather, they are the result of higher expectations.
• We expect familiar patterns to emerge in terms of these tests being closely correlated with socio-economic status. A few other states have already released the results of their Common Core aligned tests and we see an expansion of “achievement gaps” between wealthy students and those in poverty. This association is very well established in the research. It is important that we do not jump to conclusions, draw false inferences, and then make uninformed and misaligned policy decisions about schools and their performance based on this data. While assessment data is useful and informative, it is also imperfect and must be interpreted in context.
• Students in Colorado spent around 20 hours taking a barrage of state assessments from February through April last year — a level generally perceived as too much by students, parents, educators and the community. This level of testing is far above that in other nations. As a result, opt-out numbers across the state soared to record levels.
Here in Eagle County, opt-out levels were fairly muted, but we did have isolated pockets where groups of students and families refused to take the exams. We did note, both here and across the state, affluent and higher performing students tended to opt-out more frequently. As a result, we wonder if these assessments will accurately reflect the achievement levels of our entire student body when there may be a systemic bias in who refused to take the exam.
In sum, we applaud the spirit behind the PARCC tests in raising the bar for student expectations. However, we do have concerns about these results that stem from a number of factors relating to the tests. Therefore, we urge caution and thoughtfulness as we work to understand the meaning of these tests for our schools and our students across Colorado.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.