Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Is Arkansas planning to withdraw from PARCC, the Common Core testing consortium?

Posted By on Tue, Feb 3, 2015 at 7:28 PM

Rep. Mark Lowery, a Republican from Maumelle, has introduced a bill that would put the brakes on Arkansas's implementation of standardized testing based on Common Core State Standards.

Although curriculum patterned around the new math and literacy standards has been rolling out in Arkansas classrooms for several years, this spring marks the first time that the state will test its students with exams built on Common Core. Arkansas is one of several states comprising a testing consortium called PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), but HB 1241 would direct the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) to veer away from the PARCC test and instead revert back to the old Arkansas Benchmark exam used in previous academic years. It would go into effect immediately if signed by the governor.

click to enlarge REVERSE COURSE: Mark Lowery says the state should return to the Arkansas Benchmark test, at least for now.
  • REVERSE COURSE: Mark Lowery says the state should return to the Arkansas Benchmark test, at least for now.
Lowery says the bill is motivated in part because legislators have been told by ADE officials, unofficially, that "the PARCC contract will not be renewed" beyond the current academic year. Since this is the first year the test would be used, that means the PARCC test would potentially just be employed during a single year of testing (this one, 2014-15).

"We can’t compare it to previous tests, so you'd end up operating in a vacuum there with information that is useless," Lowery told me. "The whole purpose [of Common Core] was to have an apples-to-apples comparison."

UPDATE, Wed. Feb 4: I received a note from an ADE spokesperson the day after this post was published saying, "We have no plans at this time to withdraw from PARCC. We are aware that the bill has been filed, and we are studying the implications if it passes."

PARCC and Common Core have often been lumped together in discussion (including by me, I'll admit). The loudest opponents of the Common Core in Arkansas have been conservative-leaning activists with more than a tinge of anti-federal paranoia about them. (From Arkansans Against Common Core: "The evidence shows that powerful and influential people and organizations have collaborated to create a global education system that will track our children and move them toward a global perspective that seeks to erase state and individual sovereignty.") But as has happened in other states, discontent about standardized testing may now be bubbling up in other places across the political spectrum — last night, some 200 people showed up at the Clinton School to hear National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen García speak out against excessive testing from a union perspective.

Common Core didn't create the all-powerful standardized testing machine in public schools — that was the work of President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, long before Common Core ever existed. It doesn't expand the existing testing mandate established by NCLB. Common Core is about trying to make tests better and smarter, and allowing for cross-state comparisons of student performance. Still — in the wake of the Little Rock School District takeover, in which low test scores prompted state seizure of 48 public schools by the ADE, many people in Arkansas are now looking at the entire standards-based assessment apparatus with a more jaundiced eye than a few weeks ago.

Lowery says that although he's opposed to using the PARCC test this year, he's still on the fence about Common Core itself. "I hear from both sides on Common Core," he said, but he's not encountered "a considerable amount of dissent about the standards" among educators and guidance counselors.

"But there has been about PARCC," he continued. Lowery also said evidence from other states indicates that PARCC may exacerbate the poverty gap in student performance because it requires computer skills. "For students who haven’t had a chance to practice keyboarding skills at home, it widens the gap."

If it's true that ADE is already planning to stop using PARCC beyond the 2014-15 academic year — I reached Lowery after the end of the regular workday and could not confirm with the Education Department — then Lowery has a point. A benchmark used for a single year would tell virtually nothing about student performance. At one time, 26 states in the nation were signed onto PARCC; there are only nine left, Lowery said, none of which are Arkansas's neighbors. (One advantage to a common set of standards is that students who move from state to state can be measured using the same metrics, so it matters what surrounding states are doing.) "At this point, there's not a single regional state that’s still in PARCC," Lowery said.

On the other hand, testing season is coming up in a matter of weeks. Trying to move every school in the state backwards at this point could well result in chaos, but Lowery said he believes the state still has time to make the switch back to benchmark testing.

A separate consortium of states called Smarter Balanced uses a different exam that also employs Common Core standards. It's unclear from Lowery's bill what Arkansas testing would look like beyond 2014-15. The bill calls for the governor to create a task force to "study, evaluate, and make recommendations regarding the assessment regimen to be used in public schools" in the future. "We need to develop a testing regimen that is as much as possible an apples to apples comparison to previous years," Lowery said.

He said the bill will probably come before the House Education Committee next week.

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