new measures

What is PARCC? An explainer in advance of Colorado releasing first test scores

On Thursday morning, the state will release the first batch of scores from the PARCC English and math tests Colorado students took this past spring.

Confused about what that means and why it matters?

We’re here to help …

What are the PARCC tests?
PARCC tests are a new set of annual English and math tests that were given to Colorado students for the first time this past spring. Most students took the tests online.

What does PARCC stand for?
PARCC stands for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. The partnership part refers to the fact that several states, including Colorado, banded together to develop the tests. In the 2014-15 school year, students in 11 states plus the District of Columbia took them. New York ran a pilot program but didn’t test all students.

What happened to the old tests?
They’re no longer relevant because Colorado changed its learning goals for students.

In 2010, the Colorado State Board of Education adopted what are known as the Common Core Standards. The standards are a set of expectations for what students should know in English and math at the end of each grade. Colorado is one of 43 states, along with the District of Columbia, that use them.

The standards were in effect in all Colorado schools by the 2013-14 school year. Because they include new learning goals for each grade, Colorado needed new tests to measure whether kids are meeting those goals. Hence, the PARCC tests.

Before PARCC, Colorado had tests called CSAP, or Colorado Student Assessment Program, and then TCAP, or Transitional Colorado Assessment Program. The TCAP tests were given to students in 2012, 2013 and 2014 as Colorado transitioned to the Common Core Standards.

So many acronyms.
We know. And here’s another one: CMAS, or Colorado Measures of Academic Success.

CMAS is the acronym for the entire bundle of standardized tests that Colorado students now take. The English and math PARCC tests are just one part of CMAS. The other part is a set of science and social studies tests that were developed by Colorado alone. Those tests were given to students for the first time in the spring of 2014 and again in the spring of 2015.

Here’s a handy umbrella graphic from the Colorado Department of Education that explains the test structure:

CMAS Umbrella Graphic CDE
PHOTO: Colorado Department of Education

But the scores this week are just for the English and math tests, right?
Right. The scores for the science and social studies tests already came out. Scoring the English and math tests took longer because they’re new this year. In the future, the state hopes to release the scores before the start of the next school year. So if students take the tests in the spring, the results will hopefully be available by the summer.

How are the PARCC tests different than past tests?
The PARCC tests are supposed to be harder. In addition to measuring whether students know the basics, they’re designed to test skills such as critical thinking and problem solving.

The English tests include both reading and writing, as opposed to the way things used to be, with separate tests for each. The questions are different, too. In the past, students might have been given a word and asked to pick a synonym for that word from a list of five choices. The PARCC tests still ask about the meaning of words but in the context of a story, such as in this example from the PARCC website: “What is the meaning of the word dictate as used in paragraph 23?”

The math questions are also more complex. They tend to involve multiple steps that require students to show that they understand the concepts, not just that they know the right answer.

Read some more sample questions here.

Which students took the PARCC tests?
Colorado students in grades three through 11 were tested in English. Math tests were given to students starting in grade three and ending with students who’d completed Algebra II or Integrated Math III. Integrated math is a type of curriculum that blends elements of Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II over the course of three years. Instead of taking Algebra I one year, Geometry the next and Algebra II the next, students take Integrated Math I, II and III.

The exact number of students who took the PARCC tests won’t be released until Thursday. But the state Department of Education says about 1 million tests were given.

Next year, that number will be lower. In May, state lawmakers responded to concerns from parents, teachers and others about too much testing by passing a bill to limit it. Starting next year, only students in grades three through nine will take the English and math PARCC tests. The high school tests will be replaced with college prep and college entrance exams, such as the ACT, although the state hasn’t decided which exams it will use.

Is it the same in other states that are part of PARCC?
Not necessarily. Testing requirements vary from state to state. At a minimum, the federal government requires states to test students in grades three through eight in English and math and once in high school if the states want federal money for things such as supporting students with disabilities and supporting low-income students (and most states do).

But, wait. Can’t parents opt their kids out of PARCC?
Yes. That same bill that state lawmakers passed in May says that parents may excuse their children from taking one or more of the tests. And districts are prohibited from imposing negative consequences on students who opt out.

Which scores will the state be releasing this week?
Statewide test results will be made public at or shortly before 10 a.m. Thursday. The results will include the number of students in each grade who took the tests and how well they did. For instance, the results will show how many third graders met expectations in math and how many met expectations in English. (For more on what that means, keep reading.)

The scores also will be broken down by various subgroups, such as students’ race and ethnicity; whether they qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty; and whether they’re English language learners. So it will be possible to compare how several different subgroups — white, black and Hispanic third-graders, for example — did on the tests.

In addition, the state will release the number of students who opted out.

The results will not include scores for individual school districts, schools or students. Those scores won’t be available until next month because the state is still awaiting and validating the final data. Once the state releases that data, it will be up to the districts and schools to provide parents with individual student score reports. The reports will look something like this.

How are the tests scored?
Each test is worth between 650 and 850 points. Students are given a raw score and then placed into one of five “performance levels” based on that score. Here’s the breakdown:

Level 1 (score of 650 – 699) = Did not meet expectations
Level 2 (score of 700 – 724) = Partially met expectations
Level 3 (score of 725 – 749) = Approached expectations
Level 4 (score of approximately 750 – 800) = Met expectations
Level 5 (score of approximately 800 – 850) = Exceeded expectations

The last two levels are fuzzy because the scores vary from test to test. For example, on the third-grade English test, a score in the range of 810 – 850 would put a student in Level 5. On the eighth-grade math test, the score range for Level 5 is 801 – 850.

Only students in levels 4 and 5 are considered to be on track to enter the next grade — or for high school students, ready for college or a career.

This Colorado Department of Education chart shows the five levels.

Performance Level Chart PARCC CDE
PHOTO: Colorado Department of Education

Who set the performance levels?
Panels of teachers, college faculty members and education experts from all of the states that belong to PARCC worked together to determine which scores should correspond to which levels. In August and September, the levels were approved by the PARCC governing board, which is made up of state education chiefs, including Colorado’s commissioner. Those levels needed to be set before the tests could be scored and the results could be released.

Here’s an essay by a Colorado teacher who helped build the PARCC math tests.

How will the scores be used?
This year’s PARCC scores will be used as a baseline to measure future academic growth. Starting next year, districts, schools and teachers will be able to compare scores from year to year to see if the number of students meeting PARCC’s expectations is growing or shrinking — which can help determine whether kids are learning and educators are on the right track.

But it’s not possible to draw those conclusions yet. As such, state lawmakers created a one-year “accountability pause.” Teachers, schools and districts won’t be held accountable for this year’s scores, and the scores won’t be used in evaluations or accreditation decisions.

However, it will be possible to compare Colorado’s baseline scores to the baseline scores of other PARCC states. Those state-to-state comparisons, which provide further context, are considered by some to be one of the advantages of the PARCC system.

So are the other states releasing their scores this week, too?
No. Each state is releasing its scores on its own timeline.

Several states, including Illinois and Ohio, have already released partial or preliminary data. New Jersey and New Mexico are among the states that have released more robust results.

Isn’t it true that some people don’t like PARCC?
Absolutely. The tests have been criticized for being too expensive and taking up too much school time. Other critics don’t like that PARCC is a multi-state consortium that receives federal funding. However, attempts by state lawmakers to withdraw Colorado from PARCC have failed.

When will students take PARCC tests again?
Colorado students are scheduled to take the PARCC tests again in April. That month, some students will also take the state-developed science and social studies tests, and high schoolers will take college prep and entrance exams. In response to backlash about extensive testing time, the PARCC tests will be 90 minutes shorter than they were this past spring.

Regrouping

After another bumpy testing year, Tennessee likely will slow its switch to online exams

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Members of Tennessee's testing task force listen to a presentation by Mary Batilwalla, deputy commissioner over assessment for Tennessee's Department of Education. The group offered feedback on options for transitioning to online testing after more problems occurred this year.

Tennessee education leaders are rethinking their timeline for adopting computerized testing after a parade of technical problems bedeviled students taking the state’s TNReady exam for a third straight year.

Most students are scheduled to test online next school year under a three-year transition plan. But since keyboard testing had significant challenges this year with half that number of students, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen is backing off from that timetable.

And while there’s disagreement over exactly how to move ahead, there’s consensus about one thing.

“We have a credibility issue,” said state Rep. John Forgety, “and we need to get it right one time.”

McQueen floated three options for the 2018-19 school year to members of her testing task force during its Wednesday meeting in Nashville:

  •     Returning to paper testing across all grades for one year;
  •     Computer testing for high school students; paper testing for grades 3-8;
  •     Computer testing for grade 6 through high school; paper testing for grades 3-5

Off the table, however, is the option that districts had this year to give computer tests to more grades than required by the state.

The state ordered that all high school students take the test by computer this year, but about 40 percent of districts also chose to go digital for at least some of their students in grades 5-8.

The early thinking had been that letting districts test more students than required would expedite Tennessee’s online switch if local leaders felt ready. But state officials now believe the piecemeal approach only complicated the process.

“We feel very strongly” about this decision, Deputy Education Commissioner Mary Batilwalla told the task force. “The complexity is really too great for us to overcome in ensuring that we have a seamless delivery.”

The 30-member task force of educators and advocates has been McQueen’s sounding board on TNReady and other testing issues, and she sought the group’s feedback one week after the state’s messy testing season ended.

“We don’t want to introduce any additional complexity. We want to eliminate complexity, eliminate risk,” said McQueen, who also is turning to superintendents and upcoming focus groups for advice about how to improve their TNReady experience.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks at a 2017 event as Gov. Bill Haslam looks on.

McQueen will decide about digital vs. paper — and for which grades — by late June. She is leaning toward keeping high schools online and putting all lower grades on paper tests, but it’s not a done deal, she told Chalkbeat.

“The feedback we’re getting is for more to go online than not, and that’s very meaningful to hear,” she said.

Her boss, Gov. Bill Haslam, has made it clear that Tennessee is committed to eventually adopting computerized testing.

“It’s not just that’s where the world is going; that’s where the world is,” Haslam said earlier in the week.

About 300,000 students took TNReady online this year — the most ever since a wholesale switch to computers failed in 2016 under Measurement Inc. McQueen fired that testing company, hired Questar as its successor, and unveiled a new game plan to gradually wade back in. That approach worked well last year for the 24 districts that did a trial run for high schools, although later scoring errors detracted from Questar’s debut.

This year marked the return to statewide online assessments, beginning with Tennessee’s oldest students. But challenges included a cyber attack and lousy internet service when a dump truck cut a main fiber optic cable — examples that demonstrate the risks of computerized testing.

There are benefits, too, however. Digital exams are quicker to score, offer more flexibility in the types of questions asked, and ultimately cost less. Returning to all paper testing would cost an extra $11 million in printing and shipping costs.

One big advantage of paper-and-pencil testing is a shorter testing period. Three weeks were allotted to TNReady this spring because schools had to rotate their students in and out of testing labs to use a limited number of computers. That requires a lot of coordination and time.

Task force members agreed that reverting to paper would be a step backward, especially with the state’s focus on the technical skills needed for college and careers and the significant investments made by school districts to prepare for online testing.

But they were adamant that Tennessee needs a win next time around to rebuild trust in a test that many consider broken.

“There has been a serious erosion in confidence in state testing, whether it’s online or on paper,” said Shawn Kimble, director of schools in Lauderdale County. “If we fail again, where does that leave us as a state?”

course count

In New York, students of color lack access to advanced coursework, new analysis finds

PHOTO: Emilija Manevska
Student writing on blackboard

If a student lived in a suburban, wealthy school district in New York state last year, her chances of attending a school with six or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate were greater than 90 percent.

In New York City – where students are far more likely to be black and Hispanic – a student’s chances of accessing such a rich curriculum plummeted to 18 percent.

That is just one example of how New York’s black and Latino students are denied access to advanced coursework, including math, science, music, and foreign language classes, according to a new analysis of 2017 data released by the New York Equity Coalition, a group of about 20 civic organizations. The lack of access cripples students trying to prepare for college and denies them the chance to take rigorous coursework, the report’s authors argue.

“It should be cause for alarm and action,” said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of The Education Trust-NY, which is part of the coalition and conducted the analysis. “We see this question of access to rich and robust coursework as being essential for New York students.”

In New York City, officials have acknowledged many students of color lack access to advanced courses — and Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to fight it. The city has announced initiatives aimed at expanding middle school algebra courses, Advanced Placement classes in high school, and computer science education.

But Education Trust-NY’s new analysis sheds light on the depth of the problem facing the city. It also suggests that simply adding classes will not be enough to enroll more black and Latino students in advanced coursework, since these students are often under-enrolled in these courses even when they are offered at their schools.

The analysis looked at “gatekeeper” courses, which authors say either provide a springboard to higher-level courses or allow students to develop important skills or passions. The courses include middle school algebra and earth science, calculus, physics, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes, computer science, advanced foreign language, and music.

Across the board, Education Trust-NY found that students of color in New York state are under-enrolled in these courses compared to their white and Asian peers. For instance, for every 100 New York high school students, about 15 white students and 20 Asian took physics, while only around seven black or Latino students did the same.

The analysis finds two reasons for the lack of enrollment among New York’s black and Latino students. The first is that students of color are more likely to attend schools that do not offer these courses. That problem was particularly acute in the state’s urban centers, including New York City, which enroll a greater share of the state’s black and Hispanic students than other areas in the state.

For instance, the share of New York City schools that offered algebra in middle school and physics, calculus, music, and advanced foreign language in high school was more than 20 percentage points lower than the state average in each case.

Secondly, even if advanced courses are offered in schools, black and Latino students may not enroll in the classes, the analysis finds. For instance, in New York City, 56 percent of students in schools offering calculus last year were Latino or black, while only 35 percent of student enrolled in calculus were Latino or black.

The city is working hard to combat both of these problems, officials say. Since the mayor unveiled his “Equity and Excellence” agenda in 2015, 152 high schools are offering new Advanced Placement courses, teachers have been trained across 550 schools to offer computer science classes, and teachers across 357 elementary schools have received training in the city’s initiative to boost algebra participation.

Additionally, since the 2017 school year, which is the year used in Ed Trust-NY’s analysis, 89 more schools in New York City offer additional Advanced Placement classes, according to city officials. However, it is unclear exactly how many new schools are offering algebra in middle school or computer science classes, they said.

The city also instituted a Lead Higher initiative, aimed at reducing disparities in enrollment among underserved students at schools that already have AP classes.

However, there are some aspects of the city school system that might work against offering more advanced classes in every school. The previous administration split many large, comprehensive high schools into smaller schools. Since smaller schools may lack the teaching capacity or number of students to justify a wide range of courses, students’ options may be limited.

New York City’s high school system is also extremely stratified by academic achievement. Top schools are allowed to select the city’s high-performing students, while the remaining schools have few students who can complete grade-level work in English and math. As a result, those schools – which disproportionately serve students of color – may lack advanced classes.

Critics may say that the lack of advanced classes is a symptom of a bigger problem: That many black and Latino students have not been prepared for more advanced coursework in their elementary and middle schools. Rosenblum said that may be true in some cases, but there are also many students who are prepared to succeed in advanced classes but are not given the opportunity.

“The research is really clear that vastly more students can succeed in higher-level and advanced courses than are currently in them,” Rosenblum said, adding, “If we want students to be prepared for rigorous courses in high school, we need more rigorous courses to prepare them.”

The analysis also points to another reason that student of color may not be encouraged to pursue advanced coursework: a lack of guidance counselors. Eight percent of black and Latino students attend a middle school without a guidance counselor, which is double the rate of their white peers. In high school, about 40 percent of black and Latino students attend schools where there are more than 250 students for every guidance counselor, whereas 27 percent of their white peers do the same.

Rosenblum and others at the New York Equity Coalition have posited several solutions to the problems outlined in their analysis. One suggestion would have students default to a more advanced set of courses that begins with taking algebra in middle school. In this scenario, parents would have to sign a waiver to opt students out of this more challenging path.

Solutions like this have the potential to appeal to those with dueling educational philosophies. On the one hand, it could appeal to those who have been calling for higher educational standards – since it would encourage more advanced coursework. On the other, it does not rely on test scores to achieve those higher standards.

This debate has bubbled to the surface recently in a conversation about New York’s Regents exams, which students typically must pass before graduating. Some argue the tests help make graduation requirements more rigorous, while others say they are a poor way to ensure more students are prepared for college.

State policymakers have signaled they are interested in rethinking graduation requirements and have already carved out exceptions for some students that stray from the traditional path of passing five Regents exams. But they have not yet coupled it with a way to ensure that students remain focused on advanced classes, raising concerns from advocates that they have been dropping standards.

Further, a wide range of politicians and policymakers have called for increased access to rich coursework, including officials at the state education department, de Blasio, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his Democratic primary rival Cynthia Nixon.