Op-Ed: Striving for Student Success, Not Just Proficiency

Emil Carafa | June 20, 2016 | Opinion
According to one assessment, PARCC is a better predictor of college success than other tests that are supposed to do the same thing

Emil Carafa
We live in a world of hyperbole where everything is “amazing” or “the best” or “the greatest ever” so it’s refreshing to see an educational tool do exactly what it was designed to do — without the exaggeration or qualifiers. The standardized assessment PARCC test is actually telling us whether students are ready for college or to enter the workforce.

It seems a little silly to say that, after all, what are schools and educators doing from kindergarten through high school if not getting students ready for life after 12th grade? But unfortunately, national and international indicators have been telling us for years that too many students are graduating from high school unprepared for the rigors of what comes after that.

For generations, we’ve congratulated students on being proficient in grade-level work, meaning that they understand what is required of them and can perform tasks commensurate with what they have learned up to that point. But the Massachusetts Department of Education recently commissioned a study by Mathematica Policy Research to compare PARCC and it’s “college ready” claim to that state’s assessment, which measured proficiency. The results were striking. Mathematica found that PARCC is a better predictor of college success, which is exactly what the test’s designers intended it to be. According to the study, 15 percent of students scoring “college ready” on PARCC needed English remediation courses and just 12.6 percent needed math remediation. The National Conference of State Legislators notes that 28 percent to 40 percent of first-time undergraduate students need at least one remedial course and that more than 50 percent of students enrolled in community colleges require remediation.

Here at home, the PARCC assessment has been heavily criticized as a graduation requirement. As a parent, I can’t understand why we wouldn’t want students to take a test that tells us whether they’re ready for college. As a principal, I am at a loss to explain how we expect students to matriculate to higher education without knowing whether they’re prepared. New Jersey spent nearly $34 billion on education in 2015; in 2013, we spent almost $19,000 per student. Despite all that money, we still send students into the world unprepared for what they will encounter. But the PARCC assessments gives me, as both an educator and a parent, hope that we can all do better.

PARCC is not a perfect assessment, but neither is NJAsk, the test it replaced. PARCC developers have made significant improvements over last year, including better support and instructional tools for teachers and administrators and releasing test items. The exam was shortened so students spent less time “testing.” And we had zero student opt-outs this year, which is critical for comparing year-to-year results. PARCC provides an abundance of sample questions and practice tests, and what we saw at PARCConline.org mirrored what was on the test. It’s interesting that parents will spend thousands of dollars on SAT or ACT prep seminars and Kumon private tutoring, but there are complaints when students spend time practicing the format for statewide assessments.

For all of the practice tools available to us, teachers and principals find it completely unnecessary to teach to the test, which is always a major criticism from parents and, quite frankly, a burden on educators. Because PARCC was designed to align with our academic standards, we know that if we’re exhibiting great teaching and keeping students on track with our benchmarks, they will score well on the assessment. This marks the first time that the metrics we use to determine whether a student has learned what is expected of them in each grade matches up with the state assessment. It seems common sense that this happens but we know for years it hasn’t. Parents should be thrilled about this advancement; instead, people are angry that PARCC is close to becoming a high school graduation requirement.

The anti-PARCC movement is filled with misinformation, rumors and innuendo. This does a great disservice to parents and students. Here’s the truth: we want every student to succeed. We also want to determine as quickly as we can when students go off track so that we make course corrections at the earliest moment instead of waiting grades later to find out they’ve fallen behind. As the principal of a pre-K to fifth grade school, I know well the importance of early learning and the value of early intervention. While most states don’t require students to pass a test to earn their diploma, New Jersey in fact has since the early 1980s. For the first time, we have an assessment that tells us not just whether students can perform high school math or English Language Arts tasks, which we otherwise call proficiency, but if they can think critically and use evidence to support their arguments and be prepared to succeed in the harder college and real-world environments. PARCC is a test worth taking.