PARCC Creator Has No Doubts, Touts Benefits of Controversial Testing

John Mooney | February 18, 2015 | Education
As NJ prepares for debut of new assessments, Laura Slover blames politics for growing ‘opt-out’ movement, says critics will ultimately see worth of new exams

Laura Slover
With New Jersey deep into a debate over the coming PARCC testing, the head of the national consortium that developed the new exams visited Trenton earlier this month to speak with a study commission appointed by Gov. Chris Christie to examine the growth and impact of testing in the state’s public schools.

Laura Slover, a former high school teacher, has been the one and only chief executive of the consortium known as PARCC – or the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers – and been left with the task of both chief cheerleader and chief defender of the new testing.

Slover sat down with NJ Spotlight’s John Mooney to talk about the growing debate over the new test and New Jersey’s place in determining where that national debate is heading. Following are excerpts from that conversation.

Q: You have heard the debate in New Jersey, and I am curious how that fits in with other states as the curtain soon goes up on the testing next month.

A: We are at a pivotal moment for the PARCC consortium, in that 5 million students in 12 states will take PARCC for the first time this spring.

We are confident the tests will be better than anything that has been out there. We are ready. The tests are ready to be launched.

Q: Are the states themselves ready and how do you know that?

A: The states are ready. They have done a number of things, including sharing resources with parents and teachers. There is a plethora of good information out there around the assessment that has been building in the last four years. Schools have also been testing their technology, doing infrastructure trials, getting ready to deliver the assessment.

Q: The question is not so much whether you have been teaching enough, but have districts prepared? Are the systems ready for this? Are schools not going to face challenges in the technology?

A: The lessons learned from the field test are there were some basic things to be improved. All of the things we learned though that have been addressed and resolved. Still it is reasonable to expect that when you administer a new program to 5 million people, there will be glitches, and we will be ready for them.

Q: How do you calm the nervousness about it? This is a very different animal than what we had in New Jersey.

A: I had the opportunity to watch some 6th-graders in Maryland take the field test last year. I spent about 40 minutes chatting with them, and they had a lot to say. And overwhelmingly, they were positive about this test. They said they had learned something from the test, they had fun, and they had especially a lot to say about the technology. There was quite a lot of excitement about just the engagement factor.

Q: The reason you are here in New Jersey is to speak to a study commission that was created to look at rising concerns about the use of assessments in the state. This has been taking place in many states. Where does New Jersey fit into the national debate?

A: There is a national conversation about testing right now.

I think it is really important at this point to take stock at what is true and not true and take a look at all of those measures, local and state, and to be make sure they are high quality, aligned to standards, providing information to teachers, providing good information to families, and overall, moving kids to readiness for college and careers.

Q: Do you think there is too much testing?

A: The Council of Great City Schools report found there is a great variation on the amount of time that schools and districts are spending implementing assessments. That is something to pay attention to.

I believe that testing is a really critical part of instruction. I’m a former teacher of high school English, and I think teachers in their classrooms are assessing all the time. They are assessing what their kids know, what their kids need to know better, and what the teacher can do a better job in teaching.

Q: But some say it should be the teachers who should do the assessing, and not pulling out students to take standardized testing.

A: Testing should not take away from classroom time, it is not an either or. It is an additional tool to give you information about your kids.

Q: What about the use of these results in evaluating schools and teachers? That’s a lot of the tensions in New Jersey.

A: It was the states that came together though PARCC to make sure there is a bridge to college and career readiness. But another purpose that states built toward was that if they wanted to use PARCC as part of an accountability system, would it be a reliable measure.

Each state will take its own approach to that. It is not relevant what my position is. It is for each state to decide. But the point is if it is to be a reliable measure, my position is that it is.

Q: What about the opt-out movement, where families refuse to have their children take the tests at all? There is a movement here in New Jersey that is growing. Is there guidance from the consortium in terms of how to deal with that?

A: That is a state-based decision and different states have different regulations around that. But there have been a lot of misperceptions about that. As a parent of a first-grader, I would not want my child to opt-out.

The tests are better, they are very different from tests of the past. They are a different experience. And I think participation is helpful in giving parents and schools information about their kids. In terms of my daughter, I would want as much good information as possible to help teachers make good decision.

Q: Still, all through all of this, there are still these headlines about protests and states pulling back from PARCC. What is your reaction?

A: I’ll go back to where I started. Five million kids in 12 states. PARCC is really strong. But there are politics and politics abound, and in any case where the states have withdrawn, it has been for political reasons. In no case has a state withdrawn because the test is not high quality. I think over time, as the politics will die down and as this becomes less new, people will embrace it.