Not a walk in the PARCC, but still the best path for Ohio

In Ohio’s education circles, much attention of late has been focused on the Third-Grade Reading Guarantee, A-to-F school grades, and Ohio’s New Learning Standards (which include the Common Core State Standards in math and English language arts). Ohio’s upcoming shift from the Ohio Achievement Assessments (grades 3–8) and Ohio Graduation Test (grade 10) to what’s being referred to as Ohio’s Next Generation of Assessments has, for the most part, flown under the radar.

Ohio’s new state assessments will likely be used for the 2014–15 school year and were developed in order to align with the learning standards adopted by the State Board of Education in 2010. The assessments will be in math, English language arts, science, and social studies (new for Ohio) and will be administered online—although a paper-and-pencil version will be available the first year. In the primary grades (K–8), students will be tested in math and English language arts in grades 3–8 (as they are now), in science in grades 5 and 8 (as they are now), and in social studies in grades 4 and 6. As for high school, the state will administer end-of-course exams in physical science; biology; Algebras I and II and geometry (or integrated Mathematics 1, 2, and 3); English language arts 1, 2, and 3; American history; and American government.

The Ohio Department of Education will develop the science and social-studies tests, and the Partnership for Assessment for Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) is slated to create the math and English language assessments at each grade level. PARCC is a consortium of seventeen states (plus D.C.) that is designing the math and English language arts assessments based upon the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). While a separate entity from the groups that developed the CCSS, PARCC’s connection to the standards has been a source of controversy in some states (including Ohio).

There is legislation under active consideration that could alter the state’s plan on assessments. Representatives Andy Brenner and Peter Stautberg introduced House Bill 413, which prohibits the state or any district in the state from administering assessments created by PARCC during the 2014–15 school year. Further, it makes it illegal for the state to renew its memorandum of understanding with PARCC when it concludes at the end of 2015, effectively preventing Ohio from using the PARCC assessment at all.

It’s normal to be concerned when big changes are on the horizon, and changing the state’s assessment system is most definitely a big change. However, this is no time to overreact. Here’s why Ohio should stay the course.

  1. The utilization of new learning standards makes it essential that Ohio have a new, high-quality assessment aligned to those standards. To gain the benefit of high standards, the assessments have to actually measure what is being taught. A review by the U.S. Department of Education found that the PARCC assessment is on track in terms of development and is of high quality. Previous state exams have focused on filling in bubbles and often lacked rigor. StateImpact Florida reported that the PARCC assessments were more interactive, had fewer multiple-choice questions, and asked students to tackle the same tasks in multiple ways to test the depth of understanding. The combination of new standards and a high-quality assessment hold the promise of getting away from mindless test prep and allowing more time to be spent on critical thinking and analysis.
  2. Critics of Ohio’s participation in the PARCC assessment have expressed concern that because it’s a multi-state consortium, it might not be a good fit for Ohio’s needs. Ignoring the fact that any alternative test Ohio would choose would suffer from this “fault,” the truth is that Ohio leaders and educators have played a major role in the development of the PARCC assessment. As you can see from this list, officials from the Ohio Department of Education have served on the governing board and key committees of the consortium. In addition, forty-five Ohio educators have been reviewing test items. This assessment, far more than any commercial alternative, reflects the efforts of Ohio’s educators.
  3. Some concerns have been raised about PARCC being a new assessment that hasn’t been properly tested. While that’s an understandable worry, one would have this concern with any new assessment. PARCC is being field tested this year in 2,000 schools across the state. That should not only provide good information on the quality of the assessment but also give PARCC, the Ohio Department of Education, and local school districts a chance to work out any kinks. This is especially true when it comes to technology, as Ohio’s new assessments, including PARCC, are administered online. As Hannah News reported on March 12, 2014, ODE Chief of Staff Jason Rafeld told the State Board of Education that “the good news about connectivity is we’re seeing a much better picture than we anticipated.”

The bottom line is that Ohio needs to adopt a high-quality assessment for the 2014–15 school year. Based upon the tremendous expertise involved in the development of the PARCC assessment (including that of many Ohioans), early indications of its quality, and the extensive testing being conducted on it, we are prepared to say that it is the strongest option to replace the OAA and OGT. While implementation won’t be easy, and while there will surely be bumps along the way, PARCC appears to be the best option currently available for Ohio.

While legislators should resist the urge to change horses midstream, there are a few things they can do that will increase the likelihood that the transition to a new assessment goes smoothly. First, they can communicate with the State Board of Education and comprehend clearly what knowledge is garnered from the field tests of the new assessment that will be conducted this spring. Second, they can watch the technology issue very closely and make sure that districts have the necessary resources. Third, they can seriously consider implementing the provisions from another piece of legislation, House Bill 193, that hold schools and districts harmless from any sanctions or penalties associated with the 2014–15 state assessment. A new test is going to have some hiccups at the beginning, and it’s going to take some time to iron out the problems. It would be decidedly unfair to apply sanctions based upon a work in progress. Finally, while monitoring and providing support for the transition, the General Assembly needs to trust the State Board of Education and ODE for a year and refrain from pursuing alternatives to a test that has yet to be administered.

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