By tpm | July 14, 2016
If you missed the news the other day, my home state of Illinois is partially opting out of their 5-year contract with the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test. While elementary grades will continue to give the test, high school students are done with it, and instead will receive the SAT as their free, state-mandated test. This leaves PARCC with only 8 states as full participants, not exactly the kind of number you’d like to see for a “national consortium.” I’ve chatted with a couple of former colleagues about this, and I suspect their thoughts (and mine) are shared by a lot Illinois teachers who have commiserated over the PARCC test.
One of the friends that I spoke to mentioned the PARCC’s “floor effect.” I think that’s a great name for it. When you tell fifth graders across that state that only 1 in 4 of them were able to pass your test, well, do you think that’s going to increase or decrease motivation the next time they have to take that test? I am all for raising the bar, but when the bar is raised so high that it becomes impossible for all but “gifted” and/or children from families with great resources to jump over that bar, you create a powerful disincentive for the rest to try.
A Predictable End
The first time I got the scoop on the PARCC test, I suspected that it wouldn’t last long for a couple of reasons. The first was the aforementioned difficulty of problems that would give top math team students a run for their money. The second, though, was that it was coupled with a lack of incentive for students and parents. Why have the ACT and SAT been around for generations while numerous other standardized tests come and go? Those tests are high stakes, and high reward. Students who do well are rewarded with admission to the colleges of their choice and scholarships to help them attend those schools. We can argue about the merits of such a system, but you better believe that it incentivizes many students to show up and give a good effort to show what they are capable of. This, as opposed to snoozing (or opting out) through tests that are high stakes only for the school or the teachers. For these reasons, I didn’t spend more than about 5 minutes worrying about the PARCC test, and that hunch turned out to be correct.
Cost to the State
I’ve been looking, but I’ve been unable to find any news reports that explain how Illinois got off the hook for its deal with PARCC. When I originally blogged about Illinois and PARCC a couple of years ago, I found state meetings online that seemed to indicate that Illinois would owe about a maximum payment of $160 million in 2018. Was there a simple opt-out clause? Did we negotiate our way to a reduced payment since we are only giving the test to elementary students, or is the state still on the hook for the full amount while additionally paying the College Board for the SAT? I’m not saying that would make it the wrong decision, but this state is in the middle of the worst budget crisis of any in the nation, and these are questions that the press should be asking and communicating to the public.
A Fair National Test
To be clear, I, and I think a majority of teachers, are not opposed to a well-written national test. The lack of unified standards across this country is a real problem. If you think its not, you and your child may be the beneficiary of a very stable career situation in a very good school district. However, I can tell you that as students came to my classroom from different districts across the state and the country, the disparity in quality and sequence of curriculum nationwide is huge. Getting an appropriate national exam with an appropriate level of challenge is designed to help with that problem since assessment drives instruction. There is nothing wrong with that when assessment is well designed.
To a small extent, the ACT and SAT have functioned this way for a long time. They are available nationally, students have skin in the game, and most students are able to achieve at least some level of success by scoring well enough to get into a college or university that works for them. While they may not be designed to a set of national standards, I an say first hand that they do have some impact on driving instruction. If you know a certain topic is going to be covered when a student is assessed on a test, you feel obligated to try to make sure to cover the material. I’m not suggesting they are the solution: the data they offer back to schools is not granular enough to make significant adjustments to instruction, they are only offered to high school students, the “incentive factor” is less for non-college bound students, they are not designed to a set of national standards… I could go on. However, for all the complaints lodged about these tests, there are some reasons they have survived for so long. They do some things well.
Illinois’s choice to move to the SAT is an interesting one. As can be seen in my SAT scores by state map, Illinois has had the highest average SAT score among the states for years. Of course, Illinois also has the fewest students take the SAT as a percentage of their total population, as most Midwestern colleges historically preferred the ACT. Additionally, for many years, Illinois’s old state assessment, the Prairie State Achievement Exam (PSAE) included the ACT, so every student had an ACT score ready to submit to the university of their choice and may not have felt it was worth their time and money to also take the SAT.
I always encouraged my students to take the SAT in addition to the ACT. Some students may perform better on one than the other. I was among that tiny percentage of Illinois students that took the SAT and scored well on it, and I’m convinced to this day that the slightly better result I got there compared to my ACT score resulted in some additional scholarships.
There is one thing I am definitely happy about for the teachers and students of Illinois as they transition to the SAT. If they choose to, they can now embrace CAS calculators, which are on the list of permitted calculators for the SAT, but banned by the ACT, which previously dominated Illinois. The College Board has no problem with them for tests like the SAT and AP Calculus. I think that’s a great thing for students because CAS calculators offer a unique learning and problem solving experience.