Some Common Core Tests Are Getting Shorter. What Are They Losing?

Bodie Manly helps Jarmon James, 12, with fractions in advance of a PARCC-like practice test.

Bodie Manly helps Jarmon James, 12, with fractions in advance of a PARCC-like practice test. Photo: Peggy Barmore

WASHINGTON – After a rough spring testing season, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), one of two state consortia tapped by the federal government to develop tests tied to the Common Core educational standards, is making big changes to its tests, which were administered to over five million students across 11 states and the District of Columbia this year.

At a late July conference – which was an opportunity for the educators who helped develop the tests to give feedback on their experiences this spring – Jeffrey Nellhaus, PARCC’s head of testing, announced a slew of changes, including the duration of the tests. The amount of time students will spend on the tests – which are given in parts over multiple days and currently take up to 11 hours to complete – will be reduced by an hour and a half. Nellhaus said the shorter tests will be easier for schools to administer, but he acknowledged that fewer questions might take away the tests’ “validity” and “reliability.”

“Feasibility was the issue,” said Nellhaus. “People were saying this isn’t practical year-in and year-out. People don’t care how good of a test it is if it isn’t feasible.”

Related: Are new Common Core tests really better than the old multiple-choice tests?

These changes come on the back of a few bruising months for PARCC. While almost all the new Common Core tests launched this spring were met with resistance from parents, students and teachers, the backlash to PARCC was particularly strong. In the last few months, Ohio, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi dropped PARCC tests. That means only seven states and the District of Columbia are set to administer the test next spring, down from the original 26 states that signed up. And it is unclear whether Massachusetts will keep PARCC. This has led many to question whether PARCC will survive. By making the tests shorter and easier to plan, PARCC is addressing the concerns of many its most vocal critics head on.

This year, PARCC tests were given in two parts. The first part, which involved a great deal of writing and multi-step math problems, was administered early in the spring, while a multiple-choice-heavy section was given closer to the end of the school year. Responding to complaints about how difficult it was to schedule the two parts, next year, these sections will be merged. But many of the teachers and administers at the conference wanted to know what was being lost to cut time.

Related: Why are so many states replacing Common Core with carbon copies?

While many are sure to welcome shorter, easier to schedule tests, Nellhaus said that there are trade-offs.

“It was originally as long as it was in an attempt to measure the full range of the spectrum, not just students who are performing close to the middle of the spectrum, but also those students performing far above or below grade level.” said Nellhaus. “The new tests will still do that, but they will be somewhat less reliable on the ends of that spectrum.”

Nellhaus concedes that PARCC tests remain longer than many of its predecessors, but he says the Common Core’s focus on writing requires longer tests.

“What makes the test long?” asked Nellhaus. “In one word, Writing. It takes longer to have students do all of that writing. And it’s not just on the [English Language Arts] side. In math, students have to explain their answers in writing. That all takes time but that’s what the standards call for.”

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Nellhaus added that he couldn’t see cutting many more questions if states wanted to continue to use the tests to make so many high stakes decisions about students and educators.

“It really has to do with what [states] are going to do with the results,” said Nellhaus. “Some states have some really high stakes for these tests when it comes to how an educator is evaluated or whether a student graduates or goes on to the next grade. We have to make sure the test meets all of those purposes.”

[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.