Last Friday, the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) released new testing regulations, cutting the number of assessments high school students are required to take by half*. On paper, these alterations seem simple and even commonsensical: PARCC testing uses up a lot of schools’ oxygen—a 30-day test window for the computer-based exams severely limits access to broadband and blended options for other learning. And, at the high school level, it’s only federally mandated to be administered once.
This departure from tenth-grade PARCC may also sweeten the deal for districts thinking of providing the PSAT or SAT—exams that reign supreme as the college-acceptance assessments in New England (the state will now pay for all RI students to take both the PSAT and SAT once for free). By limiting PARCC administration to ninth grade, districts may be more inclined to mandate or encourage the PSAT/SAT at the upper grade levels.
Still, these new regulations have caused quite a stir because, as with many debates around assessments in education, they’re neither simple nor, as a standalone, commonsensical.
Limited data, limited comparability: PARCC is, at present, the only state-mandated assessment in Rhode Island. As such, it offers the only set of holistic and comparable cross-district and cross-school achievement data. By cutting mandated high school assessments in half, we lose much of that objective mechanism for parents, teachers, and school and district leaders to know how their schools perform compared to others.
After ninth grade, radio silence: By limiting our only required high school exam to ninth grade students, we allow for a vacuum of data for the final three years of high school.
- For students, we lose an ability to ascertain, objectively, whether they are progressing through high school on grade level or graduating with a diploma that carries the same weight as one given by the town next door. (this is particularly relevant when we consider that twelfth-grade assessment scores on the Nation’s Report Card, or NAEP, have stagnated over the past ten years even while graduation rates have jumped by nearly 20 percentage points).
- For schools, testing only ninth-graders means that high schools will now largely be held to account for the proficiency of students with whom they’ve only worked for one year. Indeed, ninth-grade proficiency is much more an indication of a student’s preparation through middle school than their level of high school learning.
ESSA accountability: And for the state—barring any other updates—this shift signals a move away from rigorous accountability linked to high standards: ESSA, the new federal education law, gives states much more flexibility and responsibility over their accountability models. And it’s been the fear of some national thought leaders that this autonomy will open space for states to backpedal, creating weaker accountability models than they currently have. As Rhode Island is just beginning to design its new accountability model, limiting collection of assessment data for high schoolers will have serious implications for high school accountability, if not coupled with other rigorous metrics.
Graduation requirements: At present, our high school graduation requirements state that, starting with the Class of 2020, a student must demonstrate proficiency in ELA and math on a state-determined assessment in order to receive her diploma. RIDE is currently hearing public comment on its new diploma system, or high school graduation requirements, that would amend that system—suspending the need to “pass” an assessment. Still, within these proposed changes is an add-on to the standard diploma—called the Commissioner’s Seal—which would be awarded to students who demonstrated numeracy and literacy proficiency on a defined state assessment, including PARCC. Moving to a single administration of ninth-grade only PARCC exams will have implications for the rigor and meaningfulness of the proposed Commissioner’s Seal.
This is tricky stuff, requiring a fine-balance strike between objective comparability, rigorous proof of student success, and the too-ready notion that testing is the key to all. While it might seem like a small or straightforward decision, PARCC testing at the high school level is wrapped up in a number of larger ongoing conversations and decisions around graduation requirements and the state’s accountability system. RIDE’s decision to limit high school PARCC testing could be a component of a larger strategy or plan toward ensuring student achievement. If it is, I hope RIDE will provide further context as to its holistic thinking. But taken as an individual decision, backpedaling on high school accountability warns some worrisome implications.