Let’s Try Seeing the Value of Common Core Testing with ‘New Eyes’

NJ Spotlight, Jeanne Muzi, January 7, 2016

Teachers of the Year take hard look at PARCC assessments and decide new online exams offer accurate measurement of student readiness.  A sign on my classroom wall reads: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

That quote, penned by Marcel Proust, resonated with me this year as I worked alongside some of the country’s leading educators to weigh the value of new student assessments most states administered for the first time this year.

In August, I had the privilege of participating in first-of-its-kind research organized by the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. Over the course of two separate weekends, 23 state Teacher of the Year Award recipients and finalists, including myself, carefully scrutinized new PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments with several states’ previous tests. Our mission was to assess the assessments—that is, to determine which exams best measure student readiness and identify areas for improvement.

It was intense work. Each participant spent hours taking the tests, comparing content side-by-side. We classified the cognitive demand of each question and probed the appropriateness for the target students.

We asked practical questions like: Would I want my students and my own son or daughter to take these tests? And we didn’t stop there. We then debated the same considerations as a group, sharing and contrasting our individual findings.

Like many of the participants, I approached the research with more than a little skepticism about the new tests. Shifts in testing and instruction in the wake of No Child Left Behind had done little to improve classroom outcomes. Could these new assessments prove to be anything more than the latest short-lived mania in education? Could they better measure the rigor of education standards that we teachers have diligently implemented over the past several years?

Our answer as a group was a resounding, “Yes.”

In near unanimity, our research determined PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments accurately measure students’ true depth of understanding, better align with classroom instruction and provide a balanced range of questions.

Unlike some of the old state tests, the consortia tests provided opportunities for students to answer both straightforward recall problems and questions that require high-level cognitive skills, which provide insight into how well a child truly grasps a subject.

As an educator, assessments like PARCC and Smarter Balanced are the kinds of tests I want students to take because they align well with high-quality instructional practices — the practices that empower students to build analytical, critical thinking and reasoning skills.

In the same way, the consortia assessments more accurately measure the skills and knowledge students need to succeed at high levels of learning. For teachers and parents, that information is invaluable. It allows us a glimpse into how well the children in our classrooms are learning, and how effectively we are helping them build knowledge and skills sets.

With that information, we can focus instruction, build on what works, and get students support when and where they need it.

The tests aren’t perfect. We all agreed there are areas for improvement, especially as students and teachers transition into this new format. But we all agreed the changes are a step in the right direction — they help put our students on “the right trajectory.”

As states have begun receiving results from assessments aligned to higher standards, some groups have begun to sound the retreat.

They say these new exams are too difficult, not difficult enough, too long, not grade appropriate — the list goes on and on. Certainly, some concerns are legitimate. The trend of over-testing has grown burdensome in recent years and educators need time to adjust to changes happening in our schools.

But we shouldn’t let those issues undo the good that’s happening. Let’s correct what’s wrong and build on what’s working.

I believe if we could just strip away the labels, the politics, the agendas and the preconceived notions, and just focus on what’s best for our kids, we can build a stronger, fairer, more informative system of accountability.

Students who take these new assessments are required to apply complex thinking skills. No matter what name you put on it, isn’t that what we want for our children?

I urge policymakers to heed Proust’s words, and approach higher standards and constructive assessments with “new eyes.” Our students will benefit.

An Award-Winning Teacher Explains Why PARCC, Smarter Balanced Are the Kinds of Tests Students Should Take

Hechinger Report, Josh Parker, January 5, 2016

Maryland officials recently released scores from PARCC assessments, which were administered for the first time this spring. The results pulled back the curtain on a tough reality that went unspoken for a long time: When held to levels that reflect what students need to know and be able to do to succeed at high levels of learning, far too many of our kids are not where they need to be.

Only 39 percent of students in grades three through eight met or exceeded proficiency benchmarks in reading, according to the data. In math, just 29 percent of students met proficiency targets. While the numbers are sobering, they provide an honest snapshot of how well prepared students really are when measured to levels that reflect the skills and knowledge young people need today.

This fall, I had the opportunity to participate in research conducted by the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. Alongside more than 25 State Teacher of the Year Award recipients and finalists, we compared PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments to several states’ former tests. Our review concluded in near unanimity that these new assessments are of higher quality than those they replaced and that they better measure student understanding.

Like many teachers and parents, I approached PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests with some skepticism. What should set these exams apart from their predecessors? Were we simply looking at the latest fad in education? When I had the chance to sit down and compare content side-by-side, my concerns were quickly alleviated. It became evident the substance of the consortia tests outshined the material from the old tests in several ways.

What struck me most was how well both PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests align with what we are teaching in classrooms. Over the past several years, local educators, like our counterparts across the country, have implemented Common Core Standards, which set high learning goals at each grade level. Where the old tests presented a scattershot of material aimed at the lowest common denominator, the consortia tests reflect the transformation happening in classrooms.

The increased rigor of the new exams, which matches higher expectations in classrooms, means students are now measured to levels that truly reflect the skills and knowledge base they need to get and stay on a path of college- and career-readiness. Students can’t guess their way to a right answer; now they must demonstrate understanding. As a result, the best way to prepare for these tests is to cultivate student comprehension—not to “teach to the test,” as many educators found themselves pressured to do in the past.

Because the consortia exams align with classroom instruction, they also do a better job of informing instruction. By asking students to explain their reasoning and posing adaptive questions, tests like PARCC and Smarter Balanced hone down on students’ comprehension of an issue. Teachers can then confidently use that data to tailor curricula, build on what’s working and make adjustments to ensure classroom needs are fully met. No more guessing or relying on incomplete information.

Years ago, when I served as the chair of my school’s English department, one of the biggest challenges I faced was determining how well students really understood the material in front of them. Before we could begin improving student outcomes, we had to know how well they were actually performing. High-quality tests were one of the best tools we had to make those determinations. Sadly, we often had to dig through a lot of exams that were unhelpful.

PARCC and Smarter Balanced, on the other hand, are assessments parents and teachers should want their kids to take. The content is challenging and age-appropriate. It does not cater to the lowest level, as so many state exams did in the wake of No Child Left Behind. Instead, the consortia tests are predicated on the belief that all students can achieve to high levels. There will be an adjustment period as schools acclimate to higher expectations, but gradually we will see more students performing at college- and career-ready levels.

Like many parents, I had reservations about the new tests and academic expectations Maryland is implementing. But from my experience in the classroom, and after close scrutiny, I am fully confident they are a step in the right direction for our children. To go back on these efforts would do a disservice for our students and reinforce an environment that allows too many young people to move through the K-12 system unprepared for the challenges they’ll face after high school graduation.

Josh Parker is an Instructional Coach at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., and a 2013 NEA Foundation Global Fellow. In 2012, Mr. Parker was named Maryland’s Teacher of the Year.