Understanding The Newest Wave of Standardized Testing

Figuring out what tests are necessary for your kids' future


A recent hot topic is whether parents should refuse to allow their children to participate in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) state standardized exam, which will be administered in March and April to third through eleventh graders in Rhode Island’s publicly funded schools. The PARCC aims to assess student learning in mathematics and English/language arts. It replaces the previous state standardized test, the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) and is aligned with the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a national effort to establish standards for teaching and learning in elementary, middle and
high schools.

In January, the Providence Journal published, “Students can opt out of new tests in RI,” an op-ed written by retired teacher Sheila Resseger that described the PARCC as pedagogically and developmentally inappropriate. Resseger urged families to resist by refusing to allow their children to participate. In response, outgoing state commissioner of education Deborah Gist packed consecutive weekly field memos – communiqués to state education leaders – with warnings about the consequences of PARCC refusal. Gist’s January 23 memo states that right now, the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) will use “2015 PARCC results neither for school classifications, graduation decisions, nor student-growth scores,” though she also suggests that PARCC opt-out may eventually threaten to imperil students’ status. Gist and others at the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) have also suggested that since Rhode Island’s school districts don’t have a formal process for opting out, doing so isn’t possible. Opt-out advocates respond that the state’s lack of a policy and process for families to refuse their children’s participation doesn’t mean that such refusal cannot happen.

Since this flurry of PARCC-related media, other parents have been floating the topic when our chats drift toward education. “So, this new test, this PARCC thing,” the conversation tends to start. “Are you going to let your kids take it?” My answer is, “Yes, and...” This response feels like the classic start to an improv skit, because it seems like we are wildly improvising in the face of, well, you name it: uncertainty about the actual significance of the PARCC, Common Core backlash, the educational and mental health of our kids, worries about schools’ technological readiness, the association of corporations such as Pearson Education with the test’s development and administration, arguments about the role of teachers as the best assessors of student learning, qualms about the ways test results and other collected data may be used, concerns about test design and so much else. If you don’t feel great about your kid taking the PARCC, you will doubtless find your reason in the miasma of angst that clings to it.

Without drama or trauma, my own children tend to do relatively well on standardized tests, thus contributing positively to their schools’ bottom line as measured by its testing data. Though I am strongly in favor of a system that balances large-scale standardized assessments with teacher-driven, class- room-based tests of mastery, my kids – third, sixth and ninth graders in the Providence Public Schools – will take the PARCC, even if the only current cost to refuse their participation may be the time and hassle required to opt them out. This is a cost that some parents in Rhode Island are choosing to bear, as is evident on Facebook groups such as “Stop Common Core in Rhode Island,” which serves as a sounding board and information clearinghouse for families who are opting for their kids to sit out the PARCC.

As for your choice for your children, be clear about your motivation, either for them to take standardized tests or for denying their participation. You should find out all you can about how and when the tests will be administered, how much class time they may miss due to test preparation or the testing itself, and how your kids’ test scores will be used.

Now that Gist is headed west to be- come the Tulsa, Oklahoma superinten- dent of schools, time and the political appointment process will tell what the RIDE’s stance may be. Perhaps we will stay the course. On the other hand, half of the states that formed the PARCC consortium have postponed or declined to administer the test this year. Others – such as Oklahoma, as it happens – are moving away from the Common Core entirely (though toward what is not clear). So, yes, figure out what your want for your own kids – and remind our elected officials that we need an educational policy environment that respects learning and growth at least as much as the tests themselves.