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Opportunity arises

State has chance for better tests by JAY P. GREENE SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | February 14, 2015 at 1:58 a.m.

The Legislature is considering a number of proposals to alter the state's current requirement that public schools administer the PARCC test, one of two federally funded tests aligned with the Common Core standards. These proposals are motivated by a variety of concerns, some of which are legitimate and reasonable and some which are not.

Whatever its legitimacy, the current debate is an excellent opportunity for Arkansas to reconsider why it requires testing and what kind of test would best serve these public purposes.

Past testing has been motivated primarily by two goals: providing transparency and directing the behavior of educators. The evidence is now clear that transparency has meaningful benefits for parents, communities and policymakers, but attempting to use testing to drive what educators teach and how they teach it has been counterproductive. Starting next academic year, Arkansas should switch to using a norm-referenced test that provides transparency but does not attempt to control how schools and teachers do their job.

The PARCC test, which Arkansas plans to administer this spring, is a criteria-referenced test, which is the type of test that tries to drive what educators teach. It is aligned with a set of standards--in this case, Common Core--and rewards schools and teachers that emphasize teaching the particular content covered by the test and expected by those standards.

Criteria-referenced tests cause three serious problems. First, because they are aligned with a set of standards, schools and educators are able to "teach to the test." But it is also possible for educators to focus too narrowly on the content covered in the test. All criteria-referenced tests are inherently gameable. In trying to tell schools and teachers what they should teach, they also provide educators with a road map for how to drill students in the particular content of the test to raise scores artificially. This undermines the transparency benefit of testing by pushing schools to manipulate results through an inordinate amount of test preparation. It also causes schools to narrow their curriculum to coach tested content to the exclusion of other important content and subjects. The arts, history, and sciences all suffer from criteria-referenced testing in math and reading.

Second, because criteria-referenced tests are aligned with a particular set of standards, they invite a perpetual and destructive struggle over what those standards should be. I have no opinion about the merits or defects of the Common Core standards, but I do know that Brookings Institute scholar Tom Loveless and others have shown that states with "better" standards have fared no better on independent measures of academic achievement than states with what are considered lousy standards. It isn't so easy to know what the right standards should be, and it's even harder to push educators in productive ways to teach those standards. Given how the quality of past state standards has made no difference in student outcomes, why should people bother to fight to impose a set of standard and aligned testing over the objections of many who have legitimately different opinions about what educators should teach?

Third, criteria-referenced tests are trying to use a crude instrument from a great distance away to get schools and educators to do what state or national policymakers think is best. Even if those remote elites are well-intentioned--and sometimes they are not--schools are still run best by local educators and communities.

There is a different type of test that Arkansas could administer that avoids these dangers of excessive and narrow test prep, unnecessary political fighting, and centralized control over education. Norm-referenced tests are not aligned with any particular set of standards, but can still provide general measures of how well students are performing academically. They meet our reasonable goal of wanting transparency about how students are progressing in school. But because they are based on a generic curriculum rather than a particular set of standards, it really isn't possible for schools to game them by focusing exclusively on a narrow set of content.

In addition, because norm-referenced tests are not pushing a particular set of standards and content, they do not invite political struggles. They also don't boss around local schools and teachers because they aren't trying to make them teach particular content or in a particular way.

There are plenty of already-developed norm-referenced tests from which Arkansas could choose. Because they can be bought off the shelf and do not have to be customized to Arkansas, they would also be cheaper than trying to develop another Arkansas-specific criteria referenced test. It is probably wisest to go ahead with PARCC this year, given how late in the process we are, but a change to a norm-referenced test could be made for next school year.

Don't let anyone tell you that the federal government requires us to adopt PARCC or some other criteria-referenced test. Education is the prerogative of states, and federal law prohibits the national government from mandating specific tests or curriculum, despite the fact that it has taken steps in that direction. Arkansas needs political leaders with the courage to stand up and do what is best for Arkansas.


Jay P. Greene is the 21st Century Endowed Professor in Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, where he is head of the Department of Education Reform.

Editorial on 02/14/2015

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