The Illinois State Board of Education recently released preliminary results of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, the standardized achievement tests that were administered for the first time to Illinois schoolchildren last spring. Preliminary results indicated that startlingly large numbers of Illinois students failed to meet achievement standards in math or English language arts and literacy. Sarah McCarthey, the director of teacher education at the University of Illinois, spoke with News Bureau education editor Sharita Forrest about the PARCC tests and controversies surrounding them.
How do the PARCC tests differ from the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, or ISAT, previously used to evaluate student learning?
The PARCC tests differ from the ISAT in substantial ways. First, the PARCC tests are aligned with Common Core Standards, whereas the ISAT were aligned with Illinois State Standards. This means that the content, types of questions and format differ.
The ISAT reading tests, for example, had a short paragraph followed by multiple-choice questions; questions were usually lower-level comprehension questions looking at literal facts from the text with an occasional question that required interpretation. There was an “extended response” in which students wrote in response to a prompt, such as taking a position on their city’s mayor implementing a 7 p.m. curfew for citizens under age 16.
The PARCC tests consist of lengthy texts excerpted from published texts: There are both fictional and nonfictional excerpts. Students first answer questions about one text, then the other. Finally, they are required to compare the texts and write an essay about a theme across both texts. The questions require a great deal of interpretation and are very challenging.
The preliminary results included only the students who took the test online, or about 75 percent of the students who took the PARCC. How might the use of technology affect students’ scores?
My analysis of the tests suggests that there were likely a number of challenges that students faced – especially the youngest children, the third-graders. Simply scrolling down the pages of lengthy selections could be difficult for younger students, especially those without computer experience. Some of the questions required students to drag and drop text to put story events in chronological order, which also could be a challenge.
Using tablets, which some schools did, could be an even bigger challenge.
Most schools in the Champaign-Urbana area simply don’t have the number of computers required and the space and time to rotate all test takers through the required components.
Preliminary reports indicated that more than half (59 percent) of Illinois high-school students flunked the mathematics portion, and 43 percent performed below expectations on the English language arts section of the PARCC. What conclusions – if any – should we draw from these scores?
We should be very cautious about drawing any conclusions. The significant content change, the challenges of students using computers, and the many logistical problems caused by so many students taking tests at the same time should give us pause.
However, the PARCCs’ focus on critical-thinking skills, or the interpretation of text rather than literal comprehension of it, and the requirement to write an extensive analysis of more than one text, indicate higher learning standards that I think we should strive for.
Teaching strategies will need to evolve to focus more on high-level thinking skills rather than lower-level tasks.
In 2010, 26 states and the District of Columbia agreed to use the PARCC exams to evaluate student performance, but that number has dwindled to fewer than a dozen states currently, including Illinois. Many parents also opted out of their children taking the exams. Why have so many states dropped out and why are the PARCC tests so controversial?
Some states are very worried about the complex performances required of students taking PARCC tests and have developed their own tests connected to the Common Core because they are unhappy with the PARCC format.
It is often the wealthier parents who are opting out, with more students from poor and underserved neighborhoods taking the tests.
Still other stakeholders, especially teachers, are frustrated that education has become so “corporate” and their expertise devalued.
Companies like Pearson are developing the very textbooks that align to the tests and charging a lot of money for their products, thus having a monopoly on our education system.
Is student performance on standardized tests such as PARCC an accurate assessment of the quality of instruction and teacher performance?
No. PARCC tests, at best, can only be an indicator of how well students do on certain tasks. Even though I think the tests are an improvement over past tests, PARCC can in no way measure all the important aspects of learning. There are so many factors that affect learning that cannot be measured by even a very good test.
PARCC scores should NOT be used to assess teachers. There is little evidence to show a direct correlation between teaching and students’ performance on tests. Thus, we must be cautious about how we use test data.