Imagine you are sitting in a classroom, and have been working hard to learn the material throughout the semester. Suddenly, right before finals week, the teacher announces that there will be NO TEST! Some students in the class are high-fiving and gathering up their books as they prepare to leave, probably not planning on returning to class. The teacher is smiling and looks pretty relieved as well. You feel like you should be excited too, but after the initial feeling of relief passes you wonder about the implications of “No Test” and approach the teacher-
You: Will we still get a grade for the class?
Teacher: Yes, of course, I have to give you a grade.
You: What will it be based on? The test was 90% of our grade.
Teacher: I don’t know. If you really want to take a test, I guess you can take this test from a couple of years ago. It would cost extra though.
You: Was it the same class?
Teacher: Sort of, but we learned different things.
You: I don’t think that will work. How will I know if I leaned what I need to know for my next class?
Teacher: I don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter, at least we aren’t taking a test!
But it DOES matter. It matters to Arkansas students, parents, teachers and policymakers. We all deserve to know if Arkansas students are learning.
If passed, House Bill 1241, filed last week by Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, would essentially mean there will be “No Test” this year for the majority of Arkansas students. While this last-minute change might placate some of the Common Core opposition in the short-term, retreating from annual testing would be very problematic in the long-term and leave Arkansans as confused as the fictitious student in the conversation above.
In less than a month, Arkansas students will begin taking the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests in English and math. Under development since 2010, the tests are replacing the Arkansas Comprehensive Testing, Assessment and Accountability Program (ACTAAP) exams that have been administered annually to Arkansas students since 1999.
We don’t love students missing learning time to take tests, but we see assessment as an integral part of the learning process. We have been giving Arkansas students annual exams for 15 years, and the results provide valuable information to students, parents, teachers and policymakers. Examining the results of the annual ACTAAP exams showed us that more students have been meeting criteria to be “proficient” or “advanced” in Literacy and math. Students got feedback about their strengths, and those that were not proficient were required to be provided additional help at school. Parents were able to learn if their student was meeting academic expectations. Teachers could learn something about the students coming into their class, without wasting several weeks of instructional time at the beginning of the year trying to determine who knew what. Policymakers looked for schools that were High Achieving or Beating the Odds, and worked to identify what practices were working for students and why.
We cannot afford to take our eye off the ball. We have been making progress with our students and without annual assessments there is no way to measure progress for all Arkansas students.
Here at the OEP, we believe Arkansas should definitely administer a statewide assessment this year, and we recommend PARCC for several reasons:
1- Because students, parents and teachers were told that we would. Knowing the target is important. Teachers and school leaders have worked for years to ensure that their students will be prepared to succeed on these assessments. Districts across the state have invested time and money to purchase computers, prepare facilities and staff to administer the assessment.
2- Because it measures the standards Arkansas students have been taught. Arkansas students have been being taught the standards measured by PARCC. Starting with K-2 students in 2011-12, then 3-8th grade students in 2012-13, and finally with 9-12th grade students in 2013-14, Arkansas students have been learning the content that will be measured by PARCC.
3- Because Arkansas educators have been a part of test development. Arkansas teachers have been involved in developing the PARCC items. From writing the questions, to reviewing the final items, Arkansas teachers were at the table, having their voice heard.
4- Because Arkansas educators will participate in setting the standards. Arkansas educators are already signed up to participate in the important process to determine what “proficient” looks like on the PARCC assessment.
5- Because we care about Arkansas students. PARCC will help us all learn if we are preparing students to be ready for college and careers; and allows us to compare our performance to 10 other states! Will Arkansas students do better than students in Massachusetts? If not, at least we will have information about where we need to improve.
An eleventh-hour change eliminating the PARCC testing this Spring would mean that students will get no unbiased feedback about their learning. Letter grades are subjective and can vary widely from teacher to teacher, and students deserve to know how their performance stacks up against a common measure. Parents and teachers across the state will lack a consistent source for information about student learning. School leaders and policy makers will have to use whatever scraps of data they can find to inform their decisions. The option suggested by HB 1241 is to revert to the old ACTAAP testing system from 2012-13. Not only would this re-introduce all the limitations of the ACTAAP assessments, but they no longer measure what students have been being taught. They also takes MORE TIME for students to complete and will COST MORE to administer. Both options are bad for Arkansas students and the PARCC exams should be given as scheduled this Spring.
The controversy surrounding PARCC (however unwarranted) may push state leaders to re-consider the choice of exam for future Arkansas students and search for a new exam to replace it. If this happens, there are a few testing virtues that should guide this search. A good statewide exam should certainly allow for comparisons across states throughout the nation, should allow for measures of student growth over time, and should be connected to important learning outcomes that matter to students.
There are several exams being used across the country that boast one or more of these characteristics. The Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) and SAT-10 are examples of norm-referenced exams that allow us to compare Arkansas students’ performance to that of other students across the country. Either ITBS or the SAT-10 (previously the SAT-9) has been administered to Arkansas students’ for over ten years. An example of a test that allows for accurate measurement of student growth is NWEA MAP, an online, computer adaptive assessment that provides students, parents and teachers with information about student performance compared to a national peer group. Many Arkansas districts are already voluntarily using NWEA MAP to get actionable information about their success with students. Finally, an example of an exam that is connected to meaningful outcomes for students is the ACT Aspire. This exam is also an online assessment that provides students, parents and teachers with information about student performance compared to a national peer group. Importantly, ACT Aspire is linked to the ACT College readiness benchmarks and the ACT College Entrance exam.
Indeed, we are not the only ones that feel that many of these qualities in a test are important. Today during a press conference at which Governor Hutchinson announced the creation of a council to study the Common Core standards and assessments, the governor expressed that standards and tests should hold students to high expectations and tests should allow for national comparisons.
The success of Arkansas students is important to all of us. It is critical that we continue to administer annual assessments of student learning, and we need to honor the hard work for Arkansas students, parents, teachers and policymakers. Retaining the PARCC test today – with the possibility of moving to a different high-quality assessment in the future– is the right answer for Arkansas students.