The start of the 2014-15 school year has put the spotlight on the new Common Core standards and PARCC tests that NJ students will take next spring. But less attention has been given to the major increases in high school testing that are part of these changes.
Current seniors will be the last class required to pass the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) to receive a diploma, a requirement that has been in place since 2003. Students traditionally took the HSPA as juniors, with retesting during senior year for those who didn’t pass the first time.
Starting this year, freshman, sophomores and juniors will face six new high school tests as part of the PARCC exams. PARCC includes language arts exams in grades 9, 10 and 11 and math exams in Algebra I, Algebra II and Geometry. Each computer-based exam has two parts: a “performance” section given in March and an end-of-course test in April or May. (The NJDOE’s 2014-15 assessment calendar is here, with a recent revision here.)
The new tests are named for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a federally-funded, multi-state consortium that is developing the tests in conjunction with large commercial testing companies, including Pearson, Inc. Originally, the consortium had 25 members, but at present New Jersey is one of only 12 states and the District of Columbia that have remained in PARCC, and one of only nine states that will give the PARCC tests in 2015.
Passing the new high school tests will most likely not be a NJ graduation requirement for at least several years. Although NJ law requires a high school graduation test, the NJ Department of Education (NJDOE) has proposed suspending the “exit test” requirement during the transition to PARCC. But many questions remain unanswered:
- Will PARCC test results be reported on student transcripts?
- Will colleges use the scores for admissions and placement decisions?
- Will schools or districts use the results in deciding course grades or credit?
- Will the scores be used to make decisions about access to special programs or remedial services in high schools?
- How will districts handle students who “opt out” of the tests?
- How long will the “transition” last, and what graduation policies will be put in place when it’s over?
Given growing concerns on the part of parents and educators about the overuse of standardized testing, it is important to note that PARCC’s high school exams significantly exceed federal requirements. While federal mandates require annual math and language arts tests in grades 3-8, such testing is only required once during high school grades 9-12. Adding six, computer-based tests with multiple parts to the high school curriculum will have significant costs and impacts that are only beginning to come into view.
The Christie administration’s “College and Career Ready Task Force” recommended suspending the graduation testing requirement just long enough to put the PARCC exams in place. The report recommended following that suspension with the re-instatement, and even expansion, of the exit testing requirement with as many as six additional exams in subjects not yet tested by PARCC, including science and social studies.
The long-term implications are far-reaching. A report from the Carnegie Commission projected that implementing Common Core-aligned high school exit tests could double the national dropout rate and cause graduation rates to plummet. A policy brief from the New America Foundation similarly argued in “The Case Against Exit Exams,” “that states run the risk of…undermining efforts to increase rigor, build stronger curricula, and authentically evaluate students’ postsecondary readiness” by using tests like PARCC as graduation requirements.
The NJDOE’s short-term proposal to suspend high school exit testing during the transition to PARCC is a positive step. But it needs to be made permanent as part of a comprehensive review of state assessment policies. Such a review was promised by the Christie Administration when the Governor stepped in last June to block legislation that would have required a thorough public evaluation of the implementation, uses and costs of both the Common Core standards and the PARCC tests. As of this writing, the weaker “study commission” proposed by the Governor in place of that legislation has still not been formed, even though the commission’s initial report is due in December.
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