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The Struggle to Find the Perfect Standardized Test Is Real

So it looks like the standardized test known as Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) is now a dead man walking in Illinois. I might have stopped to mourn if the promise of state-by-state comparability hadn’t been on death row for the past several years. At one point, some 45 states had agreed to adopt one of two Common Core-aligned tests, which not only raised the bar nationwide, but also created some shared understanding of what grade-level proficiency really looks like from Nevada to New Jersey. I know “national standards” has become a filthy word among most educators, but if I were running the world, there would be one national test for all students in grades 3-12. Just one. Not two, or 22, or 50, like there was in the early 2000s, when No Child Left Behind was the accountability law that educators loved to hate. Because if parents really want to know if their local school is helping kids learn—instead of empty reassurance that their artificially inflated test scores means they moved to the right school district and their property values will hold—then they need to start demanding one high bar for proficiency across the country. Kids in Mississippi and Missouri should have the same bar as Massachusetts and Minnesota, otherwise you’ll just never know if your kid is really smart or just living in a state where the grade-level standards are politically, pathetically low. So here we are, almost back to where we started eight years ago, before the stars aligned around testing comparability and 90 percent of states agreed to cooperatively join two testing groups, Smarter Balanced and PARCC. Only four states will take the PARCC exam this spring, and this will be the last year for Illinois, which has bowed to pressure from superintendents statewide who said the tests were too long, the scores too low, and the results too slow to arrive. It’s an expensive decision by Illinois—$20 million alone for test design—and will further muddy accountability because you can’t measure long-term progress when you keep changing the dang test every few years. But it’s hard to decry the demise of PARCC because the new test will be more popular (hey, maybe you opt-outers can get off your high horses for a spell!), and it might even be a better test. Illinois says the new test will be “computer adaptive,” which is a far more nuanced and fairer way to measure student achievement because the online exam gets harder or easier depending on students’ right or wrong answers. Testing will take less time, and the results will be available immediately. All of those changes are promising, because if we can’t have one national test, then we might as well fix the flaws in the state tests. But here's what remains to be seen: Will Illinois make it easier for students and schools to achieve “proficiency?” Last spring, fewer than 40 percent of some 900,000 test takers passed the reading and math exams. Somehow I suspect that political forces—along with educators and parents who want to drink the “My school is great” Kool-aid—will conspire to make it easier for Illinois students to pass the new test. That may be local control, but it sure as hell isn’t educational progress.
Tracy Dell’Angela
Tracy Dell’Angela is a writer, education nonprofit executive director and a mom passionate about education improvements. Previously, Tracy was Director of Outreach and Communications for the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. She came to IES from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, which produces research that ...

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