PARCC Rides Off Into the Sunset… On a Circular Track

It’s no secret that people don’t love Pearson’s PARCC tests. Even way back in 2015, states were practically tripping on themselves trying to get away from the unpopular test, which was originally designed to provide comparable results across state lines. That trend has continued, and only a handful of the original dozens of PARCC states remain. Now, it looks like Colorado is jumping ship. It’s about time. But are we really leaving PARCC behind? Or are we just witnessing a rebranding effort?

Colorado’s experience with PARCC has not been overly pleasant. For starters, and although there have been some improvements on this front, results have been slow to roll in despite promises from test-making giant Pearson Education that their technology would make those results available faster. It’s hard to do much with test scores that come in after the new school year is already in full swing. That makes it very tough to create buy-in on the part of educators, parents, or even education observers.

PARCC has similarly failed to convince students and parents of its value, and opt-out numbers have soared. Those opt outs are a serious problem for a number of reasons. First, they signal that the state is spending many millions of dollars on a testing instrument that parents and students do not see as valuable enough to use, particularly in certain grade levels. Second, they throw a serious wrench in the state’s accountability system. You know there’s an issue when you have to start flagging school and district accountability reports with asterisks for “low participation.” Finally, and more seriously, the unreliable data caused by the opt-out movement harms parents’ ability to make informed educational choices and adds fuel to the fire of the anti-reform movement.

There are many, many issues involved in Colorado’s current testing situation. But I remain convinced that one of the primary drivers of Colorado’s testing woes has been PARCC’s unpopularity. That’s why I was thrilled to see Independence Institute support a bill this year to remove PARCC from all Colorado high schools and replace it with a test that prepares students for and aligns with the SAT in 11th grade. That bill has since been signed into law.

Now, it looks like Colorado is taking similar steps in earlier grades. Thanks to a Colorado State Board of Education decision back in December, Colorado will soon move away from PARCC testing in grades 3-8 as it withdraws from the PARCC testing consortium. That should be cause for celebration for parents concerned about PARCC and a good catalyst to begin returning our focus to sensible accountability and testing. But don’t get too excited yet.

The move away from PARCC appears, at least to me, to stray dangerously close to  an empty branding shift that doesn’t do much to address the underlying issues with the product in question. From the Chalkbeat article linked above:

State officials announced Wednesday that the multinational testing and technology company Pearson had won a competitive bidding process to administer the math and English tests. Pearson administers the current PARCC tests along with the state’s science and social studies tests, which are given annually to students in one grade in elementary, middle and high school.

“Because Pearson has been already providing the testing services for CMAS (the state’s tests) for a number of years, the transition to the new contract should be seamless for educators and students,” Katy Anthes, Colorado’s education commissioner, said in a statement. “Educators and students are familiar with Pearson’s systems, so this will allow them to continue to concentrate on teaching and learning the Colorado Academic Standards, which is the content assessed by the tests.”

I understand the state’s desire to use some questions from PARCC in order to statistically crosswalk the old tests and the new ones from the purposes of maintaining critical academic growth measures and ensuring some level of comparability. But to award the contract for a new test to the same company responsible for all the old test’s broken promises seems… well, unwise and a little disingenuous. And given the promise that the transition to the new test will be seamless, I can’t help but wonder how many substantive differences we’re really going to see.

It’s hard for me say exactly what the new test will look like. It’s equally hard to say whether and how it will differ from the current PARCC tests. Perhaps Pearson and CDE deserve the benefit of the doubt on those fronts for now. But I know one thing: Attempting to bamboozle parents on this heated issue—particularly while paying millions to the same company they’ve grown to hate—would be a mistake. Simply sticking a new label on PARCC will not be good enough. Pearson and CDE have an opportunity here to get testing and accountability. But without real changes that parents can understand, our state’s testing problems will continue. They may even worsen if parents feel tricked.

Here’s hoping this move signals a desire for real change and not just sleight of hand.