The Grown-Up Version of PARCC: Can We Measure Up?

The New Jersey Department of Education just released our children’s 2017 scores on the state standardized PARCC tests in language arts and math. The news is good: students improved in both subjects. And, yet, the news is hard to hear because scores aren’t as high as we’re used to seeing on our older tests, ASK (grades 3-8) and HSPA (the former high school diploma qualifying test).  After all, unvarnished appraisals of student achievement are hard to swallow in a state that prides itself on the superiority of its school system and so lobbying groups like NJEA and Save our Schools-NJ, resenting the message (as well as the decrease in students opting out), shoot the messenger. “New Jersey’s public education system ranks at or near the top in the U.S. in nationwide studies,” read a statement from SOS-NJ yesterday. “Our students are not failing; PARCC is failing our students.”

We’ll cut them some slack and examine that premise by looking at three aspects of student outcomes on PARCC, the scores themselves, the validity of those scores, and the current state of PARCC politics.

Student Outcomes:

According to a press release from the DOE,

From the first to the third year of PARCC testing, over 88,000 more students met or exceeded expectations across all grade levels in ELA, and nearly 70,000 more students met or exceeded expectations across all grade levels in math. Meeting or exceeding expectations on the assessments is one indication of whether or not a student is on pace to be college and career ready.

And from NJ Spotlight: “The state showed growth in virtually every grade, with more students finishing in the top two levels of the five-tier scale.” (If you want more detail, see the  Star-Ledger.)

And from We Raise New Jersey, “With these gains in only three years, students have shown steady progress in meeting grade-level academic standards.”

Here’s an example of the improvement:  the percentage of fifth-graders who reached proficiency or advanced proficiency in language arts (scoring, respectively, 4 and 5)  went up to 58.9%, the biggest jump this year.  For comparison, last year 53.3% of fifth-graders got a 4 or a 5.

Math scores were lower. In 2015, the first year N.J. administered PARCC, 44.9 percent of third-graders got a 4 or 5 in math. This year 52.4 percent did. In 2015 41 percent of fifth-graders got a 4 or 5. This year 46.2 percent did. And in 2015 36.8 percent of seventh-graders got a 4 or 5 in math. This year 39,6 percent did.

In other words, younger students are reaching proficiency levels at higher rates than older students. This makes sense: PARCC is aligned with the Common Core State Standards (which we renamed the New Jersey Student Learning Standards) and so our younger children have had more exposure to the higher expectations and focus on critical thinking skills embedded in the Core than our older students, Remember that the State Legislature adopted the Common Core in 2010 and districts took a few years to thoroughly upgrade course content. This is a disparity that time will fix.

Also noteworthy: this year districts received the scores in late June, the earliest release in N.J.’s forty-year history of standardized testing. In the past districts would receive results on our old ASK and HSPA tests as late as October. This earlier release date gives teachers and administrators time to adjust curricula in order to address student needs more effectively.

How Valid Are The Scores?

There has been ample shade thrown on PARCC tests: they’re too hard, too stressful, and inaccurately reflect student proficiency, charge critics.  Are they?  One way to test that premise is to compare PARCC scores with an assessment called NAEP, a test given nationwide to a cross section of 4th– and 8th-grade students every two years. NAEP is also known as “the Nation’s Report Card” and is considered, even by folks like Diane Ravitch, to be the “gold standard” of what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas.

In 2015, NAEP reported, 43 percent of New Jersey fourth graders tested proficient or advanced proficient in language arts. On the 2015 PARCC, 51.1 percent of fourth graders tested proficient or advanced proficient in math.

In 2015, NAEP reported, 47 percent of New Jersey fourth graders tested proficient or advanced proficient in math.. On the 2015 PARCC, 40.6 percent of fourth graders scored proficient and advanced proficient

So, our fourth graders found NAEP slightly harder than PARCC in language arts and NAEP slightly easier than PARCC in math.

Now let’s look at the old ASK scores. In 2014, the last year that N.J. administered ASK,  67.2 percent of fourth graders scored proficient or advanced proficient in language arts and 74.9 percent scored proficient or advanced proficient in math.

Here’s the three test results for fourth-graders in math:

Math NAEP:    43 percent

Math PARCC: 51.1 percent

Math ASK:       74.9 percent

The lenses we used in the past to gauge student proficiency and school quality, ASK and HSPA, were distorted, creating the perception that our students were better prepared for life after high school than they really were and artificially inflating how much our children had learned. Some people refer to this discrepancy as the “honesty gap.”

Which brings us to…

The Politics of PARCC:

Let’s presume that residents of New Jersey can look squarely at honest assessments of student growth and acknowledge that there’s room for improvement. Sure, 75 percent of our students were never really proficient at grade-level math —  our old tests distorted reality — but our schools are still really good: on NAEP, only Massachusetts and New Hampshire scored higher. But “really good” isn’t good enough if our endgame is to adequately prepare students for life after high school, whether that’s college, careers, or the military.

Where do we go with this new information? Do we upgrade course content, instructional methodologies, and expectations? Or do we take a regressive approach and demand to turn the clock back?

Let’s leave Save Our Schools, NJEA, and Education Law Center alone; they are frantically taking aim at the wrong target. If these lobbying groups had their druthers, we would eliminate PARCC altogether and preserve the artifice of excellence, resist any data that threatens the immutability of the educational establishment. This stance hurts our children’s prospects but it does benefit adults, because the endgame here is to sever all ties between teacher evaluations and student outcomes (which is why NJEA spent millions of dollars campaigning against PARCC). 

More worrisome to those of us who embrace academic honesty is how much our prospective next governor Phil Murphy will value the strings, purse and otherwise, that currently tie him to NJEA’s leaders. At last November’s NJEA Convention he announced that he would “scrap PARCC Day One.” Sounds rather Trumpish, doesn’t it? ““Repeal and replace with something terrific,” swore the brute in the White House (68 times!). But I don’t buy it. Murphy’s smarter than that. He also told NJEA members that he’d fully fund the school funding formula, which is fiscal impossible. It’s just politics, right?

But it’s not. This is about our kids and their ability to find success once they graduate from N.J. high schools. We — teachers, students, advocates, parents, Phil Murphy — are  better than Trump. We don’t cling to pretense and subvert reality. We can celebrate our schools and, simultaneously, strive to improve them. Whether we can rise to the challenge is our own test.


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