Rob Stein column: Misconceptions and recommendations on testing
Just when the state testing program has started to stabilize in our schools, our elected officials are jumping back into the testing wars. In December, the State Board of Education asked the Colorado Department of Education yet again to start shopping for new assessments, even though the state had just adopted the PARCC assessments in 2015. The Senate and House education committees are likely to propose changes to state testing this session, and Gov. John Hickenlooper recently stated that Colorado should continue to test ninth graders.
I want to clarify the facts, address some misconceptions, and then propose a few improvements for Colorado’s state testing systems.
The first misconception is that standards and testing are an intrusion on local control. The PARCC assessments are the product of a multistate consortium and are based on the Common Core State Standards.
In spite of claims that the Common Core federalizes education, it was initiated as a voluntary, bipartisan, state effort to establish learning goals in core subjects. Following 42 states’ adoption of the Common Core, Colorado and 18 other states joined the PARCC (Partnership for Assessing Readiness for College and Careers) to develop assessments for measuring whether students were developing those core, essential skills. These consortia provide choice and competition in the marketplace, provide economies of scale and allow for sharing of expertise and resources across states. The Common Core and PARCC coalition offer far more accountability and responsiveness to state and local entities than any for-profit textbook and test manufacturer ever has.
Instead of less local control, the information that we get from PARCC helps us determine whether our local decisions are paying off. Our school district and individual schools are free to diverge programmatically, as long as we meet statewide benchmarks. And as a state, the PARCC allows us to measure whether state-level innovations are paying off in terms of gains made in comparison to other states. How can our local school boards, or our State Board of Education, make sound educational decisions without a common measuring stick that stays constant over time?
A second misconception is that testing takes too much time. PARCC testing requirements in English and math increase at each grade level, and there are additional state-testing requirements for social studies and science in some grade levels. All told, even in grades where the heaviest battery of tests is administered, students spend far less than 1 percent of their time in testing.
A third misconception is that state testing isn’t useful. We use annual assessment data to evaluate program effectiveness, determine which efforts are paying off, place students in courses and identify individuals who need more challenge or remediation. Individual student assessment data helps us monitor students’ progress, gain assurance that students are learning, or intervene when there isn’t evidence of sufficient progress. As a social justice imperative, assessment data helps us ensure that all students are deriving equal benefits from public education. Without state testing, parents and policymakers would lack the most important tool in guaranteeing the rights of their students.
Based on these misconceptions, let me suggest three reasonable improvements. First, the critics are right that turnaround time on test results is too long. PARCC needs to make the quick return of test results a priority, and as it is accountable directly to its governing board and indirectly to the state, we should expect this to happen.
Second, the state should switch from PARCC to the PSAT 8/9 for grade nine. The state made the judicious and courageous decision in 2015 to switch to the PSAT-SAT sequence for grades 10 and 11. The SAT is a nationally recognized college entrance exam that is relevant to the majority of our students who are planning to go to college. The PSAT 10, a “pre-” SAT test, allows 10th-grade students to see earlier how they are progressing toward college readiness and how they will stack up for college admission.
This fall, our district voluntarily decided to administer the ninth-grade version of the PSAT to get a baseline for incoming high school students. We believed the PSAT 8/9 test results would be a valuable tool for providing earlier information about college readiness, and our students and families agreed: whereas only 78 percent of 9th graders took the mandatory PARCC assessment last spring, we had almost 100 percent participate in the PSAT 8/9 this fall. Because our students willingly took the PSAT 8/9 and because the PSAT better predicts performance on a test that matters to them, the change seems obvious.
Third, if the Legislature or State Board of Education really want to reduce time spent testing, they should consider dropping the mandatory science and social studies test given in intermittent years and avoid adding more subjects. The lack of year-to-year data makes the test meaningless for educators and students. Keep the state’s testing focus on the three R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic), where there is broad and nonpartisan consensus on their importance. Leave citizenship, social studies, and even science to the discretion of local communities to define and measure.
There are certainly things we can improve, but there are a lot of things that we are already doing well. As a citizen, I urge our elected officials to take stock of the gains that have been made, consider some improvements, but for the most part stay the course that has been set over the past several years.
Rob Stein is superintendent of the Roaring Fork School District.