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Editorial: Room to improve on PARCC testing

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Two words immediately come to mind when looking at preliminary data, released Wednesday, on last spring’s PARCC standardized school test: Abysmal and incomplete.

Less than a third of Illinois students from fourth grade to high school met or exceeded expectations on the math portion of PARCC, an acronym for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. Proficiency scores in English were slightly better: from a low of 31 percent for high school students to a high of 38 percent among eighth graders.

Yikes.

But before we all start freaking out, it’s important to remember that PARCC is a new test and first-year scores — grim as they are — provide a useful baseline by which to judge students’ future performance. PARCC is a tough test by intent, meant to better measure what really matters in a sound education. To compare these scores with those of the old state exam, the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, is a matter of apples and oranges. The drop in supposed “proficiency” is dramatic, more than 25 percentage points in math for some grade levels.

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PARCC is designed to examine a student’s ability to think through a problem, in line with Common Core standards. That gets closer to the challenges in real life than simply testing rote memory with multiple-choice questions. High school students probably were thrown for a loop after years of filling in bubbles on answer sheets. That may explain why in part they tested particularly poorly; only 17 percent were proficient in math.

Still, PARCC’s rollout was clumsy. Illinois Superintendent of Education Tony Smith correctly called it unacceptable that data from the test’s results are only trickling out. School districts want that data now so they can adjust curriculum to students’ needs. Yet, they won’t know for a few months more how their own students performed last spring. Smith roughly estimated that only about 75 percent of the tests, those completed on computers, had even been graded. Others done on paper, in Braille, Spanish or using sign language are still being evaluated.

We don’t know yet how many students opted out of the test, but we do know the movement had momentum. We hope more students take the test in 2016, though we understand why many declined this year; they are fried from too much testing. Next year’s PARCC test has been rejiggered to take less time to complete.

It’s important to remember, too, that PARCC is only one measure of success, albeit an important one. The best research shows that grades — those good old As, Bs, Cs, Ds and dreaded Fs — and school attendance matter most in determining success in high school and college. They reflect progress and effort over time.

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