Did Georgia make a mistake going it alone on tests? Should we have stuck with national Common Core tests?

Jemelleh Coes, Georgia’s 2014 state teacher of the year,  participated in a recent study on the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and Smarter Balanced exams aligned to the Common Core State Standards.

A special education language arts and reading teacher from Statesboro, Coes writes about how impressed she was with the tests. I thought her op-ed was timely in view of our discussion yesterday on Georgia's decision to drop out of PARCC and create its own test.

For background: In 2013, Gov. Nathan Deal and Superintendent John Barge pulled Georgia out of the PARCC consortium of states because of  the projected cost of the new test under development. The PARCC test was predicted to cost about $30 per pupil, almost double the per-pupil cost of assessments in Georgia.

Deal and Barge said the PARCC test, which covers math and English/language arts, would have cost Georgia as much as $27 million a year --- more than the state's entire testing budget for multiple subject tests. Instead, the state created its own tests, the Georgia Milestones, which rolled out last year. The decision leaves Georgia parents unable now to compare their children's performance against peers in other states.

At the time, state Sen. Fran Millar, a Republican from Dunwoody who once served as chairman of the Senate's Education Committee, said he was not sure the price tag for the PARCC test was too high. "We spend nearly $8 billion a year on education, " he said. "Was $30 million really, at the end of the day, too much?"

That question has taken on more significance now that Gov. Deal wants to move to a merit pay system in which student scores on the Milestones would determine half of a teacher's annual rating.

At a Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education forum Friday, Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based education think tank,  echoed Millar's concern, saying Georgia made a mistake going with a cheaper, less comprehensive test.

With that background, here is Coes' column:

By Jemelleh Coes

Every teacher knows that there are certain students who just stay with you. You know they’re destined to do great things, and you count yourself lucky to have been part of their education. For me, one of those students was a young girl named Rachel who is still one of the most brilliant writers I’ve known. She won awards for her nonfiction stories and plays; she was recognized nationally for her gifts. But Rachel was known as struggling student because she scored poorly on standardized tests.

If our students are our greatest joys, then the standardized tests that teachers must administer are our banes. We help children prepare for them, we give them testing strategies, and we hope that the results don’t pigeon-hole students like Rachel into low-learner categories. Until recently, though, that was really the only outcome for Rachel and other students like her who see the world differently and who think beyond filling in Scantron bubbles.

I recently took part in a research study that compared previously used state exams with the new assessments developed by PARCC and Smarter Balanced. For the first time, a group of the nation’s top teachers sat down with three of the tests, answered the questions, and then participated in a comprehensive analysis and discussion of our findings. We spent more than 20 hours with the tests, looking at them side-by-side and evaluating how well each one measured students’ content learning progress. By the end of the study, the results were clear: the PARCC assessment is superior to previous tests.

The final report, which was produced by the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, had five key findings around the assessments. They are:

  • PARCC better reflects the range of reading and math knowledge and skills students need to have mastered;
  • PARCC includes items that better measure a full range of cognitive thinking from recalling memorized facts to high-level thinking that requires analysis;
  • PARCC supports excellent teaching practices that ensure learning and make it unnecessary for teachings to focus on “testing strategies;”
  • PARCC provides information relevant to a wide-range of students, particularly those who are above average in their performance;
  • PARCC is more grade-level appropriate than previous assessments.

There is more to education that tests, but they are a necessary component of a full education because we need to be able to measure how well students are learning content and where they are struggling. The feedback that teachers get from the PARCC exam gives us a clearer picture of student’s academic progress, which is exactly what we need to make sure students succeed in school.

The basic fact is, multiple-choice questions have become the standard for assessing students, but their learning and achievement go so far beyond what multiple choice can measure. In fact, I would go so far as to say that there’s really not any test out today that can truly measure learning, but the PARCC test is the best I’ve seen yet.

Georgia recently released the results of its state exams, and the results are a fairly decent picture of the academic content students are learning. But having taken the PARCC exam myself now, I know that the state exam could be improved in how well it tests the full range of content knowledge we want to make sure students have, how deeply and critically it asks students to think to provide full answers, and how well it measures students’ academic content acquisition. I hope our policymakers and education officials stay the course with the PARCC exam because it is a test worth taking. It is the kind of test we want students to take and gives educators and parents the results they need to make the best academic choices for children.


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