Editorial: PARCC school tests need standards for delivering results
Standardized testing reform took another stumbling step out of the blocks today with the release of demographic data pertaining to Illinois school students. Would that we could hail the appearance of progress in an arena that has long confounded educators, politicians, students and parents.
Actually, the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career testing process is more promising than either its detractors or its rollout suggest. The previous No Child Left Behind measurements put all schools on an inevitable path toward being labeled failures and punished them to boot. The PARCC process, despite recognized imperfections, creates achievable but rigorous baselines for identifying student success and provides for consistency in analyzing results regardless of state or school system.
Some teachers complain that the process takes up too much classroom time, and some fear school districts will use the results as a cudgel when classrooms don't achieve certain goals. Some administrators fear that the public will turn on them as it sees school districts' performance in the early years of the process appearing to plummet. Some political conspiracy theorists see the process imposing some sort of federal homogeneous mind control on local school districts.
All these objections can be addressed. The test process can be modified to ensure that it is not too burdensome, the public and school systems can manage it to assure that it improves curriculum and learning and does not punish teachers. For decades, the public has been crying out for more rigorous school standards, and colleges and employers routinely complain that the graduates being sent them today are unprepared; why should anyone fear a realistic measuring system that will lead to better preparation? And, many of the same people now bemoaning federally imposed qualifications have long complained just as loudly that our schools lack universal standards that keep up with schools in other developed countries.
So, the most distressing problems with PARCC aren't with the system itself. They're with the stilted and incomplete way in which the process has been introduced. In the first stage released last September, 70 percent of Illinois students were said to be falling short of standards in English and math -- but a large portion of the student population wasn't part of the measurement because the results involved only students who took the test on computers. Today's Stage 2 release provides some useful demographic indicators related to graduation preparedness, but it's largely information schools already know about themselves, and that which isn't -- especially still-unreleased specific academic information at the heart of the whole process -- is coming too late for educators to appropriately modify their teaching before the next PARCC measurement is taken next spring.
Even this uneven rollout is not an insurmountable failure, but it is a failure. As the education bureaucracy ramps up for the second iteration of the process next spring and summer, it's first order of business needs to be to set standards for itself -- that results will be released in full, on time and in a manner that educators can employ as the process is intended, to improve student learning.