The end of test prep

Laura McGiffert Slover

More than one million students. Sixteen thousand schools. Nearly 10,000 test items. This spring is a critical milestone, as PARCC states make history by participating in field tests. More than the numbers, however, the successful field tests mark a huge shift in how we do testing in this country.

PARCC states are creating tests worth taking, made up of texts worth reading and problems worth solving. They are designed to give teachers information and tools they can use to customize teaching and learning for each student, and give students test questions and tasks that are meaningful –the kind that great teachers routinely ask students. As a former teacher, I know that good testing, the kind that measures students’ ability to apply concepts, isn’t a loss of instructional time – it’s an opportunity to learn. That’s what we are aiming for with PARCC – learning experiences, not just memorizing facts and filling in bubbles.

The PARCC assessments mark the end of “test prep.” Good instruction will be the only way to truly prepare students for the assessments. Memorization, drill and test-taking strategies will no longer siphon time from instruction. As students work through well-constructed problems, they are asked to draw upon what they’ve learned and apply it to solve problems. Results will help teachers assist kids who are struggling and help identify those who are well on their way toward demonstrating the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in the next grades and in whichever pathways they choose after high school.

Results will also finally make student performance comparable across states and indicate whether students are ready for credit-bearing college-level coursework, something that neither a high-school diploma nor existing state tests have been able to do. No longer will we send students out the door telling them they are ready, only to find that they must take remedial courses in college at their own expense for no credit, or that they aren’t ready for the expectations of the workplace.

While the tests are new, the groundwork has been laid over the last several years. Tens of thousands of people in communities across the PARCC states have worked to operationalize new standards that put students on a path to success and develop better tests to match those standards. They are teachers, administrators, principals, college faculty, state education agency leaders, community advocates, parents, and others. They are the teachers in Arkansas working arm-in-arm with the state education department to build quality, aligned resources that will ensure all teachers in the state have access to lessons and units created for them, by their peers.  They are the higher-education faculty members from every PARCC state who are sitting with their K–12 peers, reviewing hundreds of items and talking about quality and rigor. They are the school leaders who have held parent-teacher nights to explain why their children can’t afford not to be challenged and that their children will rise to that challenge.

And now all of that work is paying off, as the PARCC states and the District of Columbia roll out the field tests. For the last few weeks, 400,000 students have been piloting the test questions and the technology used for the new computer-based assessments (there are also paper-and-pencil versions of the tests). While there have been some minor glitches, the field-testing is generally going well. We are learning a great deal that will help inform improvements moving forward and work out any kinks in preparation for the first real administration next school year. Teachers are providing us essential feedback on everything from the use of technology to the clarity of the instructions manual. Students are giving us their input on the item types and the ease of using the computers to enter their answers. The voices of teachers and students are critical as we aim to continually make this a better, more coherent, engaging, and rigorous system.

Last week I had the great fortune to watch a sixth-grade class in Prince Georges County, Maryland, take the computer version of the ELA/literacy test. The kids were engaged and worked hard. After the test, we spent time talking about what they liked and getting their recommendations for improvements. It was very heartening to hear that overall they really liked the items, which they saw as more engaging than past assessments they’ve taken—and even fun. They had helpful suggestions for improving the directions and making clearer where certain computer functions are and how they work (e.g., the magnifying tools and font-size increase). More than a few of them told us we had done a “good job” developing the test.

So, yes, the numbers matter, but what really matters is that these students—and a million others participating in the field tests, their teachers and administrators, and the PARCC states that are developing and field testing the new assessments—are making history.

Laura McGiffert Slover is the CEO of PARCC. Prior to becoming CEO, Laura served as the senior vice president at Achieve.

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