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As PARCC Sheds States, Is the Common-Core Test Toast or Tougher Than it Looks?


If you're a fan of federally funded tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards, you've reached for the sad trombone several times this year. (Womp, womp.) That's particularly true if you're a fan of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers exam. 

At its height, the testing consortium boasted 24 member states as well as the District of Columbia. After a couple of years of damaging political battles, PARCC now officially lists 12 member states and D.C. But several of the states listed no longer plan to give the test—more on that below. As my coworker Catherine Gewertz reported last month, Laura Slover, the CEO of Parcc Inc., has publicly acknowledged PARCC's challenges, including those connected to costs. Remember, part of the promise of tests like PARCC under the common core would be the economies of scale afforded to states through large testing consortia.

So is PARCC in a "death spiral," as one Boston Globe opinion writer put it? Or does it have a good plan and good chances for survival?

I rang up Doug McRae, a retired testing executive who's worked at McGraw-Hill Education CTB among other places, to talk about PARCC's viability. One thing he noted is that PARCC is indeed in transition, but in a way many people might not be thinking about. And more important than making the financial numbers work for states, he said, "will be the political will to stay together." PARCC is also thinking about how to spread its reach beyond state education departments. 

In short, there are various factors working for and against PARCC. We don't know which ones will win out.

A Crumbling Core of States

First, let's recap PARCC's shrinking numbers. In the 2014-15 year, according to our map of states' testing plans, 10 states and the District of Columbia gave PARCC. That number is slated to be smaller next year. How much smaller is still unclear. Here's why:

• Three PARCC states in 2014-15, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Ohio, won't be giving the test next year due to their budgets or votes by state school boards. So count them out. 

• Another one of those 10 states from the last school year, Louisiana, is barred from using PARCC test items for a majority of its exam next year. So there's a chance it will rely on PARCC's help next year. But even if it does, the state won't be using the entire test, and it's unclear if its new test will be easily, or officially, comparable to PARCC. So Louisiana is difficult to define as a PARCC or non-PARCC state, at least for now.

• As the Associated Press reported last week, there's a serious push in Massachusetts not to give PARCC in the 2015-16 school year. The Bay State-administered both PARCC and its previous exam in English/language arts and math in the 2014-15 year, with the decision about which to use left up to districts. On our map of 2014-15 testing plans, we left Massachusetts as an "undecided" state because of the choice it offered districts. Massachusetts is slated to decide on a single statewide test for 2015-16.

What could all this mean for PARCC for the next school year? On a map of 2014-15 tests that states administered, I left Massachusetts alone, but I went ahead and crossed out Louisiana and the three clear drop-out states I mentioned above as PARCC states:

TestingMapPARCCX.pngBy that reckoning, the number of states giving PARCC will total six and D.C. in 2015-16. Those six states are Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Rhode Island. If Massachusetts ultimately chooses PARCC, that number rises to seven and D.C. One caveat: There's no sign that Louisiana will stop being a member of the PARCC consortia itself, even though its testing plans for next year are unclear. 

Leaving the 'Heavy Duty' Testing Work Behind

So PARCC has lost many states. But there's another transition at work, McRae told me. PARCC is shifting away from the "heavy-duty, test-development" work that characterized roughly the first four to five years of its existence. That work, he said, is more expensive than the phase PARCC is now entering. What's the new phase? McRae defined "maintenance and operations" mode, now that PARCC is officially off the ground.

In other words, even though PARCC has to keep the bank of test items fresh in the years to come, he said, "the ongoing test development costs will be far less."

Let's pause to remember the New England Common Assessment Program, known as NECAP, a state testing consortium that eventually grew to include Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. The NECAP exams were first administered in the 2004-05 school year, and served as the member states' English/language arts and math tests until they switched over to common-core tests. 

McRae noted that it's at least theoretically possible that PARCC, even if it only keeps a half-dozen members or so, could use NECAP, which had only four states, as a survival model. NECAP states' average per-student spending on the tests was $33, according to a 2012 paper by Matt Chingos of the Brookings Institution. That's higher than the maximum $24 per student PARCC charged its member states to give its computerized exam in grades 3-8, as Gewertz wrote last year. The maximum cost for PARCC in 2014-15 was $25 per student for the computerized high school test.

Those figures were released after some original PARCC members had left, like Alabama and Florida, but the consortium hadn't yet shrunk down to its current size. When Gewertz wrote about those cost figures, PARCC states that planned to give the test in 2014-15 had about 10 million students in grades 3-11.

It's also not impossible, McRae noted, that some states could decide to join, or rejoin, PARCC in the future. If the political furor over the common core dies down, that becomes easier to imagine. 

If you're wondering about Smarter Balanced, the other common-core testing consortium, its situation as far as membership isn't as dire as PARCC's in terms of total numbers. However, Maine, Missouri, and Wisconsin are all set to ditch Smarter Balanced next year after giving the test in 2014-15. 

Strength in Diversity?

But here are a few factors that might make it harder, not easier, for PARCC.

The maximum costs for PARCC were predicated on a much larger number of students taking the test than the NECAP. Specifically, the maximum $24 and $25 per-student maximum costs were calculated based on 5.5 million to 7 million students taking the PARCC test in 2014-15. If you take look at recent K-12 enrollment figures for the six states plus D.C. that appear firmly committed to PARCC for next year, it adds up to (neatly enough) just over 5.5 million students.

But remember, PARCC tests are only given to students in grades 3-8 and some students in high school. So that means the total number of students taking PARCC next year will be much lower than the 10 million students in grades 3-11 in states that were planning to give the PARCC test just over a year ago. The total number of eligible PARCC test-takers next year would also appear to be lower than the 5.5 million-student threshold PARCC used to calcluate its maximum cost figures last year. How much lower is unclear. 

Louisiana, which could end up using some PARCC items, has roughly 700,000 students enrolled in K-12. And if Massachusetts decides to give PARCC as its exclusive E/LA and math test next year, that could obviously help PARCC's costs significantly—the Bay State's K-12 enrollment is just under 1 million students.

McRae also argued that while test development costs for PARCC are due to fall, the scoring of the tests might also prove more expensive than previously thought and raise overall costs for PARCC.

New York state, by the way, is also a PARCC member, but has "no current plans" to give the test

PARCC, Catholic schools, and the Common Core

In her June letter, Slover said that PARCC is "confident we will maintain current competitive pricing into the future." But when I emailed PARCC spokesman David Connerty-Marin about the issue on July 10, he seemed to take a more definitive stand, stating in an email the same day that, "The PARCC states have committed to not increasing the pricing (which is already well below what many of them were paying previously)." Of course, "competitive pricing" and flat pricing can easily be two very different things. 

Connerty-Marin went on to add that PARCC is thinking about how to add not just new member states, but also seek out private schools, Catholic schools, the Bureau of Indian Education, and other K-12 entities that may want to use PARCC content. 

But the prospect of PARCC adding private schools and other K-12 entities, as part of an effort to combat price hikes, raises new questions.

• What would be the federal, state, or other enticements for these private schools and the Bureau of Indian Education to use PARCC, or at least some of its test items?

• Would private schools agree to align their instruction and curriculum more closely to those in public schools, even though many parents send their children to private and Catholic schools precisely because they may not like what they see in or hear about public school classrooms? There's evidence that many Catholic schools in particular have adopted at least portions of the common core. But even in schools where that's the case, will that lead them to agree to use PARCC?

• Finally, would PARCC's real purpose and usefulness become cloudy if a hodgepodge of K-12 institutions used it, particularly since the consortium was created to be run by states?

It's not clear which countervailing set of factors will win out. Ultimately, McRae's point about political willpower could be the key issue. Even if the prices for states end up rising dramatically, PARCC can survive if those states like the test enough and don't care about any political maelstrom. But if states decide they don't like the test anymore or are feeling too much heat from folks who don't like the common core and/or PARCC, it doesn't matter how low the price of the test is—PARCC will be in serious jeopardy.


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