Tuesday, March 3, 2015

What is PARCC testing? We tried to find out...

Testing for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) begins this week in Colorado (and many other states). While students who are taking the PARCC exams will soon be familiar with the tests, we wanted to learn a little more about who and where these tests come from and what they actually contain.

PARCC is produced by the Pearson Corporation, a British company which sells education materials in the United States. For a basic summary of how we feel about the Pearson Corporation, check out the open letter we wrote about the CMAS tests last year. Pearson also produces Common Core textbooks, which are supposed to better prepare students for the PARCC exams. 

According to the PARCC website:
As such, PARCC engages with educators throughout the entire development and implementation process in a variety of ways to ensure the assessment system reflects the best practices and meets the needs of teachers, and to ensure educators have ongoing opportunities to give feedback on and understand the Common Core and PARCC assessments before they are fully implemented.
We tried to figure out how educators (and other people) could provide feedback on the PARCC tests. So far, we haven't come across anything. Perhaps that's because, as students, we aren't given the same level of access. However, if PARCC is really a tool for community engagement with education, we hope they'll make is easier to give feedback.

So how are the PARCC tests made? Well, according to this PDF from the PARCC website produced in December 2014:
PARCC state educators and experts are highly selective! Classroom teachers and other local educators are involved at every step, including test design. More than 30 educators and other experts review each item. The process of developing test questions is unprecedented for its level of rigor and inclusiveness.
Unfortunately the number of exclamation marks outweighs the amount of concrete information in that paragraph.  We weren't able to find anything about who makes PARCC tests, but we were able to find sample exams. Pearson's website contains sample PARCC exams in Language and Math for grades 3-11. If you're interested in taking the tests yourself, they are available here. If you're not interested, we took several of them and came to a few conclusions.

PARCC's language testing follows the same general format at all levels.  Students read a passage, or watch a video, and then answer questions pertaining to it. Sample questions include:

(The above sample comes from a 9th grade Language exam. Students had previously read a Robert Oppenheimer speech.)

Something else about the Language exams that was new and different: they included video.  (For the paper exams, students read a transcript of the video.) While we understand that the PARCC exams want to be new and different, the utility of including video is questionable, especially as it seems to pose more technology issues. Furthermore, students who take the computer test will have a slightly different experience than students who take the paper-and-pencil test, so comparing scores will be more difficult.

One of the first things we noticed about the PARCC math exams is they do not go higher than Algebra II.  Thus, some high schoolers would be testing-down.  Although this isn't the end of the world, if the PARCC tests are going to be used to gauge what students have learned during the previous school year, it won't actually be effective.

Another concern we with the math problems was the manner of the fill-in questions.  The PARCC math tests use a fill-in-the-grid system for some problems.  This system is the same system as the ACT and SAT, so high schoolers would be familiar with it, but it seems it could be confusing for third graders:

(Above is a screenshot of the 3rd grade math instructions.)

While plenty of the PARCC math problems were standard, PARCC also has an affinity for word problems.  This isn't inherently a criticism--word problems can be engaging and useful--but the phrasing of some of the word problems seems it could be a cause for confusion. For example, take this question, which was on the third-grade mathematics test:

One final issue with the math test: technology.  While the PARCC tests are supposed to be computer-based, a lot of schools don't have the technology to support this, so a paper-and-pencil option is available. However, a TI-84 is required for both the Geometry and Algebra II tests.  TI-84s run around $100, and most students don't need them until pre-calculus. So schools either need to find a way to get every student these calculators, or paper-and-pencil isn't an option.

Those are just a few of the issues we've run into. Based on that, we have three basic ideas about PARCC:

1) We'd like to see more transparency surrounding the test creation process. Who are experts making these exams? How can educators, parents, and student give feedback?

2) How do we know that PARCC testing actually provides meaningful data? If test questions are confusing, if the technology or format poses problems for students, and if the tests aren't aligned with students' current level, what makes policymakers and Pearson's supposed "experts" believe the tests will give meaningful feedback.

3) To what extent did corporate lobbies play a role in the adoption of PARCC? Pearson makes money selling Common Core textbooks, supposedly to improve students' PARCC performance. Pearson also notably made the PARCC exam more difficult than the previous CSAP and TCAP standards Colorado used. Is this really about our education?

Editor's note: We'll have more on PARCC later this month as the testing continues. If you have questions about this article (or anything else on our blog), feel free to say so in the comments, send an email to cmasprotest@gmail.com, or ask Jessica on twitter: @jpiper303. If you'd like to reuse/repost any contents of the blog, feel free, but please give us credit. If you're a student and you'd like to write stuff, contact us in any of the above ways.

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