student success

Coffee Break: How Arthur VanderVeen Is Lighting a Spark Under PARCC

The  Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, is a standardized test developed with federal funding to determine if students are meeting the Common Core State Standards. Back in 2010, 24 states joined a consortium to develop and use the PARCC test but today, only six states, along with the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense and the Bureau of Indian Education continue to use it. The other states dropped the test for different reasons. Arthur VanderVeen is the CEO of New Meridian, a company that took over the PARCC test from the original developers and is now leading a bold new strategy to, in his words, “attract more users by moving beyond the old consortium to a new model focused on delivering flexible assessment solutions.” Do you drink coffee or tea and how do you take it? Coffee with cream in the mornings; green tea in the afternoon. You took over PARCC a year ago at a time when it appeared to be on life support. What are you doing to keep it going and restore confidence in the test? We made a concerted effort to listen to our customers—states, education leaders, parents and of course teachers. And what we found is that there are some elements of the consortium our customers really valued, namely the ability to collaborate, educator involvement, collective expertise, value created by economies of scale and of course, the industry-leading quality of the test. States now have the ability to continue with the old test—which by the way, has worked very well in a number of states, but they have far more flexibility to design their own test and use their own test administration vendor, while sharing high-quality, operationally ready test content. One of the biggest criticisms was that PARCC took too long to administer and too long to get results. What have you done to address those concerns? Once again, we heard the constructive criticism and we made changes to the way tests are administered. We now offer shorter versions and adaptive versions. Additionally, we are reducing the reporting time by several weeks next year so that educators, students and families will have valuable information on students’ strengths, areas for improvement and overall progress toward college and career readiness sooner. Another concern about standardized testing tied to accountability is that it drives schools to do more test prep instead of learning. Is test prep the best way to get high test scores on PARCC? We can’t possibly guess what the jobs of tomorrow will look like in a technology-rich, information society. We do know that critical thinking, reasoning, research and communication skills will enable students to thrive and adapt to a dynamically changing world. You can’t simply “prep” for a test that measures these skills. Rather, students have to engage deeply with rich content, analyze authentic problems, reason from evidence, model situations mathematically and communicate their ideas. Given the experience of Tennessee, which dropped PARCC and spent more than $100 million to develop a new test that has caused all kinds of logistical problems, do you think that states and districts might give PARCC a fresh look? Education is a dynamic process, and all of us learn from trial and error. Tennessee is not alone among states that left the two testing consortia and encountered the challenges of a go-it-alone approach. A number of other states have left the consortia to adopt custom designs, and for the most part, they’ve rediscovered that test development is expensive and time consuming, and many states don’t have the resources or staff to manage their test development vendor to the same standards of high quality. A good test should measure basic levels of learning in core subjects, but what does it not measure that’s nevertheless still important? I would argue that good, meaningful tests measure not only foundational academic knowledge, but also the critical thinking and reasoning skills that enable students to apply that knowledge in creative, thoughtful ways. Research has shown that student’s engagement, motivation, persistence, ability to collaborate and work in teams correlate very highly with student success. A holistic approach to teaching the whole child should build on these foundations as well as foundations for academic learning. Lastly, test-based accountability is the law of the land, but is there a responsible alternative to test-based accountability? Can you see the field moving in a different direction in the coming years or will we just get better at it? The field is moving toward a richer understanding of how to assess students’ development—one that incorporates multiple measures into a richer, multidimensional view of a students’ growth and progress. I wouldn’t characterize this as an alternative to test-based accountability, however. Rather, it represents a fundamental recognition that many factors contribute to a student’s development, and that, where possible, high-quality assessments should make students’ growth in those key dimensions visible and available for further instruction and support.
Photo courtesy of Arthur VanderVeen.
Peter Cunningham
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard ...

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