By the Company It Keeps: PARCC

Today marks the inaugural installment of By the Company It Keeps, an interview series with some of education reform’s most important contributors.

We’re launching with a three-day conversation with the primary players in the nation’s progression toward new, common assessments. Tomorrow, we’ll hear from Smarter Balanced, and Wednesday’s anchor leg will be run by the United States Department of Education.

But today, we have PARCC, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, one of two consortia of states funded by the federal government to develop “next-generation” assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards.

Its governing board is comprised of some of the nation’s most prominent state chiefs, and it is supported by Achieve, a national nonprofit known for its “college- and career-ready agenda.” While working for the New Jersey Department of Education, a PARCC member, I got to know and admire its leadership and staff. Those relationships and my participation in various PARCC meetings and activities contributed greatly to my appreciation for the enormous complexity of assessment and the critical role of the testing consortia.

So with no further ado: PARCC.

Could you describe the process (including the many challenges) of creating “next-generation” assessments aligned with new standards via a multi-state consortium?

It is a rigorous process that requires 22 states to work together every day to drive towards consensus about a range of policies and assessment practices that support a positive and strong learning environment for every student. States have made an incredible commitment to this work. 

There are thousands of state leaders, local educators and postsecondary leaders, administrators and faculty who are engaged in developing the PARCC assessment system. We are also seeking public input on many of our policies, often receiving thousands of individual comments.

Keeping the project on track requires intense daily focus by the entire PARCC team, especially the lead representatives from our states and local school systems. Hundreds of test-item writers and reviewers composed of SEA staff, teachers, higher education leaders and faculty, and education experts have spent countless hours developing and refining thousands of questions and items across all grade levels. 

What is PARCC most proud of?

Below are the milestones that make us most proud:

  • The states have full ownership of the development of the test, the quality of the items, the length of the test, the uses and usefulness of the output, etc.
  • Developing Educator Leader Cadres — comprised of individual teachers and principals who are helping prepare for the Common Core and new assessments — now have more than 600 members across the states, and are getting bigger each day.
  • At every step in the process, states demand a test that is developed with fidelity to the CCSS.
  • Spurring collaboration between states that are geographically and politically diverse — from Arizona to New Jersey — is an unprecedented development in American public education.
  • Colleges and universities are working overtime alongside their K-12 counterparts to develop assessments that will actually signal college readiness to students, parents and teachers.
  • And, that through the consortium, states are able to ensure a higher quality assessment than any individual state could by itself. The power of states working together is going to move and improve the entire testing industry.

What elements of this project proved more difficult than you expected?

Political transitions sometimes result in staffing changes, and that can affect procurement timelines and processes. The good news is: Despite the transitions, the states’ commitment to PARCC remains strong. We are working hard with PARCC states to ensure procurement challenges don’t impede the work and the states’ commitment to PARCC remains strong despite the transitions.

Do states have the devices and bandwidth to deliver your on-line assessments?

States and local school systems are in various states of technology readiness. Some already are conducting online assessments and will be able to easily make the switch to PARCC when the time comes. Others still are making the necessary investments in infrastructure and devices over the next year or so, and many see PARCC as the vehicle to help make the upgrades they’ve wanted all along in order to improve classroom instruction. For school systems that can’t get there in time, we’ll have a backup pencil-and-paper option available.

The reality is for many K-12 students, inside the schoolhouse may be the place where technology is lacking most in their life. Kids play with their parents’ smartphones, play video games, and have computers and tablets at home. If PARCC can be a catalyst for improving student access to new technology, then we are glad to play that role.

How important are the two testing consortia to Common Core? Is the fate of the standards tied to the fate of the consortia?

The strength of the Common Core is found in the standards themselves. The coalition of teachers, higher education, the business community, Republicans, Democrats and others will determine the fate of the standards.

The importance of the consortia is found in their power to move the testing industry and to get comparable data on student achievement across states lines. 

The new standards and the new tests obviously are part and parcel of a comprehensive new education system. The survival of one is not contingent on the other, but both parts taken together have the potential to dramatically improve teaching and learning in our states and local school systems. If states drop out of the consortia (for any reason, really), the power of the consortia is also diminished – and states will likely use lower quality tests to assess the CCSS, which undermines the promise of the new standards.

The CCSS without a high quality test is only aspirational. The test makes it actionable.

How confident are you that PARCC will be prepared to deliver online assessments on-time, on-budget, and in all promised grades and subjects to all member states during the 2014–15 school year?

Very confident! PARCC is on-track to deliver high quality computer-based summative assessments for mathematics and ELA/literacy in grades 3-11 in the 2014-15 school year. 

About how many states do you expect to administer PARCC assessments in all covered grades and subjects in 2014–15? How many states will be participating in Smarter Balanced and PARCC combined?

PARCC has a total of 19 governing states and three participating states. Smarter Balanced has a similar number of states. Both consortia acknowledge that the numbers are subject to change. Over the past three years, for example, some states have left each consortium and others have joined. In PARCC, our governing states tell us they are in it for the long haul. But we know there are no guarantees. That is why we are working hard to produce the highest-quality assessment that reflects the needs of PARCC states. Maintaining the confidence of our states, and the educators and local school systems that are informing our work, is critical.

If a state chief called you tomorrow and said, “A trusted vendor is guaranteeing me high-quality, secure assessments below PARCC costs and without all of the hassles that comes along with a 20-state consortium,” what would you tell him/her?

The state chiefs have been hearing this sales pitch for years, and they are wise to the ways of the traditional testing industry. In the past, most states just developed specs and handed them off to the vendors and hoped for the best. The consortia assessments are our best chance to move the testing industry towards innovation and quality, to have comparable results across states at all grades, and to have a state-driven product that reflects state interests—not necessarily market interests. 

The chiefs who have been a part of PARCC know all these benefits because they’re witnessing how PARCC is being developed. No vendor or individual state can deliver the kind of state-based quality review of items and oversight of vendors the consortium is doing right now. In addition, the value of “strength in numbers” vis-à-vis taking on new rigorous assessments and related policies cannot be underestimated.

Could you please describe your relationship with the U.S. Department of Education since your 2010 formation? For example, how often do you meet, what kinds of technical assistance do they provide, how much do they direct your work, etc.?

First, the states in the consortium created the PARCC proposal and they own the work. As with any grantor/grantee contract, USED monitors our work, but does not interject itself unless the grant terms are not being met. We participate in regular progress check-in calls and meetings, and USED provides technical assistance as needed or when states request it. For example, early in the grant cycle, USED convened technology experts to review both consortia’s development. Similarly, USED hosted a meeting to help inform the consortia’s approach to students with disabilities. Generally speaking, USED’s role is simply to ensure that we are satisfying the commitments we made in the grant proposal. Ultimately, the states have full ownership of this process and the final product that emerges.

Why do you think 65 percent of “education insiders” now say that PARCC is on the wrong track with that number having grown consistently over the last year?

The “education insiders” who matter most are our state chiefs, local educators and local school systems. They tell us they are pleased with our progress, and we will keep pushing forward as planned.

How concerned are you by Alabama’s decision to abandon the testing consortia and Florida chief Tony Bennett’s public statement that he’s looking for a “Plan B?”

Every state needs to make its own decisions. We respect Alabama’s position. But the consortium remains strong.

Our member states’ first choice is a state-developed test like PARCC. Commissioner Bennett in Florida is simply being a responsible chief who is planning for every possible eventuality. Our job is to make sure that PARCC remains “Plan A” for Florida and every other member state. We are on track to deliver the assessment on time, and look forward to working with our member states to implement it.

Would you please explain your plans for PARCC’s future governance, leadership, and funding?

PARCC recently filed paperwork that will move the consortium from being a “project” of the states to being an independent, nonprofit organization still led by the states. This shift will be completed before the end of the grant period in 2014-15. The chiefs who comprise the PARCC Governing Board continue to have decision-making authority for all of the consortium’s policy, operational and strategic decisions.

The Governing Board has some decisions to make on how we will go forward after the grant. Many options are being weighed. We expect more answers in 120 days.

What else would you like people to know about PARCC?

This is a state-driven effort, and, through PARCC, K-12 and postsecondary have come together as never before to ensure students have the opportunity to get ready for and succeed in college and the workforce. PARCC states are REALLY driving the vendors in a way that most states have never done with tests. 

Our chiefs, key leaders in the state departments of education and local school systems, postsecondary institutions, and individual educators have made an unprecedented commitment to this work. They see this effort as the best opportunity in history to develop a high-quality assessment system that helps move the needle on student achievement and supports high-quality classroom instruction.

PARCC has been a rallying point for K-12 and higher education to come together as never before to ensure that students are ready for a career, college, and life. From the beginning, state leadership and quality have been the hallmarks of PARCC’s work. Those will continue to be our navigation points, moving forward.

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