This week, Illinois released preliminary results from last spring’s PARCC test. In explaining the results, the Chicago Tribune left out some important context, preferring to focus on the gloom-and-doom coverage, saying, “The scores on the new exams are lower than any statewide tests since 2001.”
Part of the reason scores suddenly look terrible is because earlier low scores were manipulated. For a decade, the Illinois State Board of Education tried to hide worsening student performance on the old state tests by lowering cut scores. Like many other states, Illinois tried to game its numbers to avoid No Child Left Behind (NCLB) sanctions. When NCLB turned a worthy goal—ensuring all students reach academic proficiency regardless of race or economic status—into a ridiculous, Lake Wobegon-worthy mandate without a road map to get there, many states responded with equally foolish strategies to juke their stats.
But a federal test given statewide for decades offered hints about what to expect on PARCC. As it turns out, Illinois’ PARCC results closely mirror our students’ performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. Sure, NAEP has some important differences from PARCC—it is given to samples of students, not everyone, and it is not used for high-stakes accountability for students or teachers. Those are big differences.
At the same time, what the new PARCC results suggest is that Illinois finally has a test for all kids that challenges them to about the same level as NAEP.
Let’s look at fourth-grade reading.
The PARCC results showed 37 percent of Illinois students met or exceeded expectations in reading. On the most recent NAEP test, administered in 2013, 33 percent of fourth-graders were considered proficient or advanced. That’s pretty close. For eighth grade reading PARCC versus NAEP comes in at 38, compared to 36 percent at or above the proficiency target. Again, very close. In eighth-grade math they were exactly the same: 36 percent of eighth-graders met or surpassed the bar on both tests.
I’m heartened by this comparison. It gives me greater confidence that Illinois is finally getting on the right track to improve student performance. Having an honest yardstick isn’t everything, but it’s a good place to start.
PARCC isn’t perfect, but making people think there’s some sudden new weakness in our kids’ academic performance doesn’t help us get better. We’re building the plane as we’re flying it, and that’s tough. We’re also asking teachers to shoot for higher standards of student performance, which forces them to change how they teach and how they look at their kids—and their own—success. But results should improve as students and teachers become more familiar with the higher standards.
Knowing that we’re building a better yardstick could give us all, especially parents, more confidence that we know what the real baseline is and more drive to help our children improve.