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PARCC Proclaims Strong State Commitment Despite State Withdrawals

In the wake of a cluster of recent withdrawals from PARCC, some of the top brass at the testing consortium gathered today to call attention to the strong commitment of the states that remain in the group.

In a conference call with reporters, PARCC officials announced that 14 states and the District of Columbia have committed to field-testing the assessment in the spring of 2014. They are Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and the District of Columbia.

That, of course, means that four PARCC states have not quite reached that level of commitment: Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. None of this is a surprise to EdWeek blog readers, since we've been telling you for weeks now about decisions in these states to withdraw from PARCC, to use their own tests without actually pulling out of the consortium, or simply not to be altogether committed to using PARCC tests.

Just today, Indiana signaled it would drop out of PARCC. Pennsylvania, also a state not mentioned today as a committed field tester, intends to withdraw from PARCC, but has not yet completed paperwork required to do so. That's why we don't include Pennsylvania in EdWeek's common-assessment membership map anymore.

But while this story line has dominated news reports about the massive test-development project, PARCC officials wanted to call attention to what Massachusetts education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said was the overlooked story: the strong core of support for PARCC's work in most of its member states. Not only are the 14 states and D.C. committed to the field tests, he said, but they're also committed to using the PARCC exams when they debut in the spring of 2015.

"What I thought was important was to give you a story I didn't hear being told, which is there is a very strong coalition of states that are absolutely committed and are not wavering," Chester said in response to my asking him whether he had summoned the press because of the focus on states' concerns about the cost and length of the PARCC tests. "That was my major goal today, to provide the story I wasn't hearing."

Chester, who is the chairman of PARCC's governing board, said he never imagined that all 26 of the states that teamed up to apply for federal funding back in 2010 would stay with the project to the end.

"I never expected that all 20-plus states would still be with us at the finish line," he said. "It's no surprise we have lost a few, and it won't be a surprise if we lose a couple more along the way."

What's more important than losing a few states, Chester said, is recognizing the "solid core of states" that are "fully committed to the project."

Chester also appeared to be trying to ease jitters about whether the PARCC tests will be ready on time. "We are on time and on task," he said at the opening of the media call.

To bolster PARCC's proclamation of strong member support, four state commissioners of education and one higher education representative took turns praising the quality and value of the assessment PARCC is designing, and the involvement of their teachers in creating it.

"We weren't interested in moving to another assessment unless there was going to be a tremendous focus on quality," said Rhode Island education Commissioner Deborah Gist, adding that "hundreds" of educators have been involved in developing PARCC items. She reiterated recent PARCC statements, released with the group's cost estimates last week, that the new exams will be "tests worth taking" because they will demand that students solve real-world problems, apply knowledge, show their work, and explain their answers.

Robert Hammond, Colorado's commissioner, praised the value that item design and review has offered teachers in his state. "Our partnership has generated unprecedented levels of professional development," he said. He also noted that the PARCC test will expand the state's access to items in the test-item bank, since PARCC will release a portion of its test items every year.

Tennessee has pushed hard in recent years to raise academic rigor and sees PARCC as a key part of that process, said Commissioner Kevin Huffman. He said he expects PARCC tests to be more engaging, more challenging, and more focused on critical thinking. Since the state's own tests were too easy, allowing nine in 10 students to score proficient, Huffman said the only way the state has been able to gauge how it's doing is by watching for 4th and 8th grade NAEP results. He looks forward to relying on PARCC for yearly feedback, he said.

Richard G. Rhoda, the executive director of Tennessee's Higher Education Commission, also praised the PARCC test-development process for its inclusion of college faculty. "The level of higher education involvement has been unprecedented," he said, which helps support PARCC's use as a measure of whether students are ready for entry-level credit-bearing courses without remediation.

PARCC brass didn't answer a question, though, about how a smaller membership might affect test cost. The Washington Post's Lyndsey Layton asked at what point the consortium might begin to sacrifice the economies of scale produced by states sharing test-development costs. What, she asked, is the minimum number of states needed to make the project work financially?

Chester didn't answer. "I want to go back to the point I made," he said. "We have a strong and robust and large coalition of states that have made a definitive decision to move ahead with field tests. And that doesn't include states that are considering it, and continue to be at the table in the development process. I think we're in great shape."

Hanna Skandera, education chief in New Mexico, said educators in her state look forward to using a "premier" assessment. And Gist said that a quality assessment could come with an added price tag for some states, but that such an investment is worthwhile. And the added cost of a better test can be offset by sharing it with fellow states, she said, something Rhode Island learned from its participation in the New England Common Assessment Program, better known as NECAP.

"[NECAP work] enabled us to have a higher-quality assessment," Gist said. "Those who will need to invest a little more will find it will be worth it."

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