Maryland officials recently released scores from PARCC assessments, which were administered for the first time this spring. The results pulled back the curtain on a tough reality that went unspoken for a long time: When held to levels that reflect what students need to know and be able to do to succeed at high levels of learning, far too many of our kids are not where they need to be.
Only 39 percent of students in grades three through eight met or exceeded proficiency benchmarks in reading, according to the data. In math, just 29 percent of students met proficiency targets. While the numbers are sobering, they provide an honest snapshot of how well prepared students really are when measured to levels that reflect the skills and knowledge young people need today.
This fall, I had the opportunity to participate in research conducted by the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. Alongside more than 25 State Teacher of the Year Award recipients and finalists, we compared PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments to several states’ former tests. Our review concluded in near unanimity that these new assessments are of higher quality than those they replaced and that they better measure student understanding.
Like many teachers and parents, I approached PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests with some skepticism. What should set these exams apart from their predecessors? Were we simply looking at the latest fad in education? When I had the chance to sit down and compare content side-by-side, my concerns were quickly alleviated. It became evident the substance of the consortia tests outshined the material from the old tests in several ways.
What struck me most was how well both PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests align with what we are teaching in classrooms. Over the past several years, local educators, like our counterparts across the country, have implemented Common Core Standards, which set high learning goals at each grade level. Where the old tests presented a scattershot of material aimed at the lowest common denominator, the consortia tests reflect the transformation happening in classrooms.
The increased rigor of the new exams, which matches higher expectations in classrooms, means students are now measured to levels that truly reflect the skills and knowledge base they need to get and stay on a path of college- and career-readiness. Students can’t guess their way to a right answer; now they must demonstrate understanding. As a result, the best way to prepare for these tests is to cultivate student comprehension—not to “teach to the test,” as many educators found themselves pressured to do in the past.
Because the consortia exams align with classroom instruction, they also do a better job of informing instruction. By asking students to explain their reasoning and posing adaptive questions, tests like PARCC and Smarter Balanced hone down on students’ comprehension of an issue. Teachers can then confidently use that data to tailor curricula, build on what’s working and make adjustments to ensure classroom needs are fully met. No more guessing or relying on incomplete information.
Years ago, when I served as the chair of my school’s English department, one of the biggest challenges I faced was determining how well students really understood the material in front of them. Before we could begin improving student outcomes, we had to know how well they were actually performing. High-quality tests were one of the best tools we had to make those determinations. Sadly, we often had to dig through a lot of exams that were unhelpful.
PARCC and Smarter Balanced, on the other hand, are assessments parents and teachers should want their kids to take. The content is challenging and age-appropriate. It does not cater to the lowest level, as so many state exams did in the wake of No Child Left Behind. Instead, the consortia tests are predicated on the belief that all students can achieve to high levels. There will be an adjustment period as schools acclimate to higher expectations, but gradually we will see more students performing at college- and career-ready levels.
Like many parents, I had reservations about the new tests and academic expectations Maryland is implementing. But from my experience in the classroom, and after close scrutiny, I am fully confident they are a step in the right direction for our children. To go back on these efforts would do a disservice for our students and reinforce an environment that allows too many young people to move through the K-12 system unprepared for the challenges they’ll face after high school graduation.
Josh Parker is an Instructional Coach at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., and a 2013 NEA Foundation Global Fellow. In 2012, Mr. Parker was named Maryland’s Teacher of the Year.