Can the New Tests Quell Teacher Anger Over Common Core?

Tests are an improvement, but far from perfect, finds a survey of teachers

In this photo taken Feb. 12, 2015, sixth grader Alex Greuey, 11, reads through a problem in the English Language Arts section of the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) test as he and his classmates practice for the Common Core State Standards Exams at Morgan Elementary School South in Stockport, Ohio.

At a time when teachers’ unions across the country are fighting new Common Core tests arriving this spring, more than 1000 teachers sat down to grade some of these new tests aligned to the controversial standards.

Teach Plus, a non-profit focused on keeping good teachers in urban classrooms, asked teachers in Boston, Chicago, Memphis, Nashville, and Washington, D.C. to evaluate the sample questions provided by PARCC, one of the two consortia of states tapped by the federal government to create tests for the Common Core.

The PARCC tests will look different from what students and teachers are used to seeing. Not only will they be online, they also contain more questions that require students to write their answers.

While most of the teachers surveyed thought that PARCC would be better than what they currently have in their states, they also had suggestions on ways to improve the tests.

Before the teachers were allowed to assess the tests, Teach Plus provided them with training to ensure they had the necessary background knowledge. This included information on the goals and intentions of PARCC and the Common Core, as well as a rubric on what high-quality tests look like.

A large majority, 79 percent, of the teachers surveyed said that these tests were better than what their states used to have, while only five percent said their old state tests were better. In Boston, 72 percent of teachers said PARCC was better than Massachusetts’s old tests, which have long been regarded as some of the best in the country.

Related: Opponents of Common Core open new fronts in battle against standards after a series of defeats

A smaller majority, 63 percent, said that PARCC is well aligned to the Common Core, a set of grade-level expectations in math and English in place in over 40 states. But only 43 percent said PARCC, when compared to the old tests, would more accurately measure what they are teaching. The report hypothesized that this gap might be attributable to the fact that some teachers haven’t fully switched to the standards.

While New York is a member of PARCC, the state has opted to use its own tests for the foreseeable future.

Maura Henry, who teaches English as a Second Language at PS Q286 in Astoria, Queens, would like to see PARCC replace New York’s Common Core tests.

“PARCC is a vast improvement over what we have right now,” said Henry. “The questions are clearer and they actually test higher order thinking skills, they are not perfect, but they are much more aligned to the standards.”

A majority of teachers, 55 percent, said they were confident that these tests would do a good job of measuring the “college- and career-ready” skills that their students will need. Only nine percent said the tests wouldn’t.

Despite the majority of teachers giving PARCC high marks, many saw room for improvement. Less than 20 percent of teachers surveyed thought that PARCC would do a good job of assessing the abilities of students who are performing far above or far below what is expected of students in a given grade.

The other group selected by the federal government to build Common Core tests, Smarter Balanced, is using an algorithm to try to solve this problem. Students taking Smarter Balanced tests will get progressively more difficult questions as they correctly answer questions or, adversely, easier questions if they are performing poorly on the test.

Teachers expressed concern that some English questions required background knowledge that would disadvantage some students and would like to see the test materials correct for that.

Henry, who has used some of PARCC’s practice questions in her ESL classroom, was wary of such a move.

“I would rather have a test that is too rigorous and rise to meet that challenge,” said Henry. “I work with those kids without the background knowledge, that’s why we have a big experiential learning program here, where we do things like take them to baseball games and theatre shows.

Teachers were also concerned about the difficulty of the English questions, particularly for students learning English as a second language. Specifically, they were worried that too many difficult questions wouldn’t provide them with usable information about students who performed below grade level. Some of the surveyed teachers said they would like help, after the tests were scored, in figuring out how to analyze the results for these students.

Related: Can the Common Core raise graduation rate for English learners?

Teachers looking at the math questions, on the other hand, asked to make them harder. Many suggested that the test include more “why” questions that require students to justify their answers, which also would help in assessing how deeply students understand mathematical concepts.

The report ends with a teacher wish list for prepping for PARCC. At the top of the list: 93 percent of teachers said they wanted more sample questions to help prepare students, 92 percent wanted additional preparation materials, and 87 percent said they wanted training on how to create diagnostic tests to gauge progress as they’re preparing their students for the tests.

A little over half of teachers surveyed said they would find PARCC-developed diagnostic tests helpful. PARCC plans to start releasing such tests in the fall.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Emmanuel Felton

Emmanuel Felton is a staff writer. Prior to joining The Hechinger Report, he covered education, juvenile justice and child services for the New York World. He received a bachelor’s degree from Emory University and a master’s from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.