Karp the PARCC-Slayer

Stan Karp, Director of of Secondary Reform for New Jersey’s Education Law Center, had an op-ed in NJ Spotlight on Friday that was rife with errors. As a public service here are four corrections. But first let’s examine Karp the PARCC Slayer’s arguments.

According to our test-averse warrior, N.J.’s  high school diploma requirement — students must pass the Algebra 1 and 10th grade English state standardized tests in order to graduate, with portfolio options for students with disabilities and those who can’t achieve a passing grade — are “a ticking time bomb that the Christie Administration left at the center of state graduation policy.” Before the switch to PARCC tests, most students easily passed the state’s HSPA tests (High School Proficiency Assessments) in math and English; after all, former Education Commissioner Lucille Davy accurately described them as eighth-grade level tests. Our graduation rates were great! But current high school freshmen will have to pass PARCC, with portfolio options available for students with disabilities or those who can’t pass the standardized tests. Now that we have assessments that are actually align with grade levels, our much-vaunted graduation rate may go down. 

Sound the alarm! 

“After three years of PARCC testing,”writes Karp, “passing rates on these tests are 46 percent and 42 percent, respectively. Less than half the nearly 100,000 students who graduate annually are on track to satisfy the PARCC requirement.” N.J.’s high school graduation rate will “drop dramatically.” Also, the requirement is “illegal” because the PARCC tests are 9th grade (for math) and 10th grade (for English) but state statute says they’re supposed to be 11th grade-level tests.

So, is he right? Are PARCC tests too hard? Do they misrepresent student proficiency rates? Should we require graduation tests at all?

Correction #1: “New Jersey public schools have the second-highest high school graduation rate in the nation, surpassing 90 percent for the first time in 2016” and PARCC will “sharply reverse this progress.”

What exactly is “progress”? Is it real improvements in student academic growth or fake news? It’s true that student outcomes on PARCC are relatively low when compared to the ridiculously elevated scores on HSPA, partially because many potentially-high scorers took SAT’s or ACT’s instead. (This option ends with the current freshman class.)

And just how low are PARCC scores when compared to the highly-regarded national NAEP tests, referred to by educators as the “gold standard” for most precisely gauging student proficiency? Here’s a comparison of the most recent NAEP and PARCC tests.

As you can see, PARCC scores correlate well with NAEP (although in some cases students find PARCC easier). Our old tests allowed us to bask in a false sun of success as students received diplomas that didn’t signify grade-level proficiency. So of course our graduation rates were high. And, of course, that’s why college remediation rates are so high; students aren’t ready for college-level work.  From the DOE:

Statistics show that only approximately 40% of New Jersey’s high school students are college-ready. In fact, about seven in ten first-year students entering New Jersey’s community colleges must take remedial courses to learn what they should have learned in high school. This increases the cost of higher education for many students and delays their graduation.  

During the HSPA era we were lying to parents and students about college/career readiness.. Now we have a test that paints a realistic picture. Karp prefers fantasy, as do many who take umbrage at accurate assessments. The truth hurts. 

Correction #2: .PARCC is  “a cumbersome and costly process never designed to be a primary graduation pathway.”

PARCC may feel cumbersome to us old folk but our children, digital natives, easily navigate computer-based platforms. And PARCC isn’t costly: it’s cheaper than HSPA. In 2013-2014, the last year we used HSPA, the cost (excluding the science section) was $28.50 per student. In 2014-2015, the first year of PARCC, the cost was $24.10 per student. In 2015-2016 PARCC cost $28.09 per student so, even with the increase, we are spending less per pupil than four years ago.

How about the cost of SAT and ACT, an oft-mentioned alternative to PARCC? Ohio pays $45 per student for the SAT and $42.50 per student for ACT.

In other words, PARCC is a bargain.

Correction #3: PARCC is “illegal.”

State statute says that in order to receive a high school diploma students must pass tests in 11th grade, which is when they used to take HSPA. Now that we have assessments that are aligned with grade level, students can take them before they hit 11th grade, after 10th grade English and after Algebra 1, which students typically take in 8th or 9th grade. We could make students wait until 11th grade to take tests they were ready for earlier but is that fair to them? Why not change state statute to allow for flexibility?

Correction #4: “Graduation rates have improved every year since 2011 even as course requirements for math and science have increased. Even more encouraging, gaps between student subgroups have narrowed.”

False.  According to the recent report from NAEP,  New Jersey’s achievement gaps remain unacceptably large. There is a 28 point achievement gap between White and Black students, a 26 point achievement gap between White and Hispanic students, and a 28 point gap between students eligible for free/reduced lunch (economically-disadvantaged) and students who are not eligible.

Black fourth graders do outperform their national peers in reading, but they haven’t made any significant improvement from in at least the last seven years. It’s a similar story for eighth graders in reading, better than the national average, but no sign of  growth.

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Pilpul is a Hebrew word that means a legalistic way of interpreting the Talmud by hair-splitting and blowing smoke. David Shashka describes pilpul this way:

The rhetorical tricks of pilpul make true rational discussion impossible; any “discussion” is about trying to “prove” a point that has already been established. There is little use trying to argue in this context, because any points being made will be twisted and turned to validate the already-fixed position.

Karp is practicing pilpul.

His solution to the realities of student proficiency revealed by PARCC tests is to eliminate the requirement that students pass tests to earn a high school diploma. While federal law requires tests in math and English in high school, ESSA doesn’t tie passage of those tests to graduation. Certainly this is an idea worth exploring. But let’s not pretend that the enemy is PARCC. If there is an enemy, it’s N.J.’s long practice of devaluing high school diplomas through the pretense that they actually signify readiness for college or career.

We don’t need to slay PARCC. We need to be truthful about the significance of a high school diploma. Either it’s a document that signifies proficiency in basic subjects or it’s a certificate of attendance . Choose a side (I’m agnostic) but let’s call it like it is.

What do you think?

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