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Final College-Readiness Definition Guides Test Consortium

What does it mean to be college-ready? Half the states in the country have agreed on a definition. And that definition will shape the way student performance is judged in those states in a couple years.

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, has approved a set of descriptors for the tests it's designing for the Common Core State Standards. They lay out how many levels of achievement there will be on the test, specify what level a student has to reach to be considered "college ready," and describe the level of expertise students must show to merit that title.

The development of these descriptors is a key step in designing the tests that students in the 23 PARCC states will take in 2014-15. The other group of states working on similar tests, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, is working on descriptors of its own.

To get a sense of the discussions that go into these decisions, read my report on a PARCC board meeting in June, when K-12 and higher education members of the consortium hashed out their differences. Then read the blog post I wrote in July, which discusses how they blended those differences into a new version of the descriptors. They opened that one up for more feedback, and the result is the final ones, which can be found on PARCC's website.

A summary of public feedback shows how K-12 and higher ed. folks weighed in on a variety of topics. One was whether to assign names or numbers to the five levels of achievement on the test. Another was how to distinguish nuances in the meaning of the descriptions of students' skills at the various levels. At exactly what point, for instance, does a student's command of the subject move from "superior" to "solid," from "solid" to "partial," from "partial" to "limited," and from "limited" to "very limited?" These are the kinds of discussions that characterize the work on this stuff.

As you can see from the final documents, PARCC's policy will be that students earn the "college readiness" determination by performing at level 4 on a 5-level test. Reaching that level on the language arts part of the exam will mean that students have "demonstrated the academic knowledge, skills, and practices necessary" to skip remedial classes and go directly into entry-level, credit-bearing courses in "college English composition, literature, and technical courses requiring college-level reading and writing." Scoring at level 4 in math allows students to enroll directly in entry-level, credit-bearing courses in algebra, introductory statistics, and "technical courses requiring an equivalent level" of math.

The PARCC policy says that college-readiness scores on the test will be set in such a way that students who score at that level—level 4—will have a 75 percent chance of earning a grade of C or better in those college courses.

Scoring at level 5 on the test will reflect a "distinguished command" of the subject, and level 4 will reflect a "strong" command. Level 3 shows a "moderate" command, level 2 a "partial" command, and level 1 a "minimal" command. In earlier drafts of the policy, PARCC considered descriptors for high school students such as "very likely," "likely," or "unlikely" to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing college coursework. Students in grades 3 through 8 were to be described as being "well prepared" or "very well prepared" to engage in further study in the subject, or in need or more support. The final policy language uses the "distinguished" through "minimal" command language for all grades.

Acknowledging a sensitive area in the discussion of college readiness, the policy notes that the skills sought in the tests are only the "academic" ones necessary for college success, not the entire spectrum of skills necessary, such as persistence or motivation. It also makes sure to note that the tests aren't being designed for admissions purposes, or to place students in more advanced college courses.

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