Can the Mighty US Military Save Embattled PARCC?

Bucking the trend of states dropping PARCC, Department of Defense schools adopt the multi-state Common Core tests

All standardized test makers have been under extra scrutiny in the last year, but few have been beaten up more than the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), one of two groups tapped by the federal government to make tests aligned to the Common Core.

So far 19 of the 26 states that signed up for the PARCC test have dropped it, and just last week, the Massachusetts education commissioner Mitchell Chester, who fought to bring PARCC to the state in the first place, said he wouldn’t recommend that the state uses the tests next spring.

But PARCC also got some good news last week. The Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) announced that, starting next year, they would administer PARCC tests at their 172 schools across the globe, suggesting the test may not be doomed after all.

While the other federally endorsed Common Core test maker, Smarter Balanced, has also lost states, they have lost fewer. It’s not that Smarter Balanced is a better test than PARCC, Common Core watchers say. The more likely reason for PARCC’s troubles is different politics in PARCC and Smarter Balanced states.

Related: Will a decline on the Nation’s Report Card hurt Common Core?

Back in 2010, the Department of Education split $330 million between PARCC and Smarter Balanced to create tests aligned to the Common Core, a set of math and English standards that were initially adopted by 46 states. Originally 26 states signed up for PARCC and 31 signed up for Smarter Balanced. (In the early years, some states were members of both coalitions.)

This past spring, 11 states and the District of Columbia gave PARCC, while 16 gave Smarter Balanced tests. Smarter Balanced will lose Wisconsin and Missouri in 2016, while PARCC will lose Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Ohio.

Morgan Polikoff, assistant professor at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, thinks PARCC might also face a battle in Maryland, after the state was the only one to see falling scores on all four National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests – which are considered the gold-standard for student standardized tests.

If both Massachusetts and Maryland drop out, that would leave just five states and the District of Columbia. But PARCC officials contend that there is no state or student minimum needed for the tests to work. As proof, they point to the New England Common Assessment Program, which served just four small New England states for nearly a decade.

Related: Think you know a lot about Common Core? A new poll finds you’re probably wrong

Deven Carlson, assistant professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma, thinks politics will continue to be PARCC’s biggest foe.

“If you look at the map, you generally see that more reform-oriented states joined PARCC and these are the states where you hear some of the loudest opposition to all kinds of reform, including Common Core and testing,” said Carlson. “You also see that several PARCC states happened to have politicians who have higher aspirations, people like Chris Christie in New Jersey, John Kasich in Ohio and Bobby Jindal in Louisiana.” [All three are running for the Republican presidential nomination in a field that has increasing turned against the Common Core.]

Carlson also thinks a difference in how PARCC was administered hurt the group. PARCC states were required to contract with the testing giant Pearson to administer the PARCC tests. In contrast, Smarter Balanced states could contract with their preferred testing company to administer and score tests designed by the consortium. Carlson says that “in states where local control matters, that kind of stuff really matters.”

Related: The surprising initial results from a new Common Core exam

Neither Carlson nor Polikoff think the addition of the Department of Defense Education Activity is going to change the image or fate of PARCC much.

“I think the narrative is set in place and it’s going to be hard to change it,” said Carlson. “On the margins the addition of DoDEA is positive, but I don’t think it’s going to be a meaningful change to the perception that PARCC is the consortia with the most challenges.”

Polikoff just hopes that if more states opt to throw out PARCC or Smarter Balanced, legislators give their education departments more time to build new tests.

“You read about all of these places where they decided to throw out PARCC or Smarter Balanced and then they are working feverishly to cobble together a test from existing test items,” said Polikoff. “And I predict as those tests rollout, we will see people start to complain that teachers are teaching the same low level skills they were teaching before PARCC and Smarter Balanced.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Common Core.

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.