PARCC -- An Assessment That Is 'Raising the Bar'

In which I continue my quest to find out how expert educators are viewing the new assessments their students took this spring.

Today I thought I'd tell you about Chadwick Elementary in Baltimore County, Maryland, which has performed toward the top of the state for years.

Traditionally serving an African American community just over the city line from Baltimore City, almost half of Chadwick's students are now the children of new immigrants, mostly from the Middle East and South Asia; more than 70 percent of students qualify for the free and reduced-price federal meal program.

For years, more than 95 percent of students have met or exceeded state reading and math standards, as measured on the old state tests. But with 91 percent of its fifth-graders exceeding standards in reading in 2014 -- compared with about 54 percent in Maryland -- Chadwick really stands out. Its academic accomplishments were recognized by The Education Trust in 2013 with the Dispelling the Myth Award.

Some schools might have rested on their laurels, but that's not what Principal Bonnie Hess would call the "Chadwick Way," which -- among other things -- has to do with always pushing to reach higher and achieve more.

And it is part of a state effort to reach higher and achieve more, because Maryland belongs to a consortium of states participating in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). PARCC developed a new assessment that is much harder than the state tests it replaced. First given this past spring, the test was an eye-opener for teachers and principals, who really didn't know what to expect except that it would be harder. Even aside from the technical glitches that will probably affect a lot of kids' scores, educators in PARCC states have been expecting that their schools won't look as good with the new assessments as they might have on old state tests.

Certainly Hess anticipates that fewer of her students may be deemed to be proficient on PARCC, in part because the test is so different from assessments the state has used in the past. The state has "raised the bar on what kids are expected to know and be able to do, and we continue to do so in classroom instruction," Hess said.

She also knows that the information the school will get from PARCC about student results will require her to really think about those results. "When we get the PARCC assessment results back this year we're going to first figure out how to understand the data, what the data is telling us," she told me. "We will analyze the results child by child, teacher by teacher. We're going to look deeply into what we have and find out what we can do to make the most of interpreting the information. Once I have a clear picture, I will be able to make the picture clear for my teachers."

But that won't be the end of that process. "When we have that information in hand, we'll start moving. Because we know if we're able to understand and learn from the results, what we have to do for the following year is to make sure we do what we can to make our children successful -- not only on the test, on this one measure, but for their education."

She is reflecting the idea of PARCC, which is that it will give information about whether students are on track to be ready for college or career preparation when they graduate from high school.

PARCC is part of a national acknowledgement that there is a lot to know and be able to do in order to be a successful adult -- and that learning needs to start early.

As fourth-grade teacher Stacy Grice said, "PARCC is raising the bar for students to be better thinkers, to be more critical thinkers, to be college and career ready. That's our ultimate goal: to make them better thinkers. PARCC is going to raise the bar not just for the kids but for the teachers .... By raising the bar for us, it raises the bar for them."

She has already taken to heart the experience her students had taking PARCC in the spring. "PARCC is a dense test. There was not just one step; not just two steps; there were multiple steps and [students] had to understand how to go from one to the next. So how do I bring that to the classroom? How do I make it not just one lesson they have to learn but make the overarching ideas part of the everyday problems?"

One such "everyday problem" teachers at Chadwick developed to reflect that kind of thinking was to have fourth-grade students think about the cost of building an addition to Chadwick. The students first estimated the cost and then determined what the design, labor, and materials would actually cost. They then had to say whether they had over- or underestimated the cost and why. This gave them an opportunity not only to use math, but also to develop some number sense around real-world costs.

"Overall, it's about how do I make my teaching more substantial?" said Grice. "How do I give them more?"

Those are the questions that helped Chadwick's teachers propel their school to the top of the state on the old assessments, and will, I have no doubt, propel it back -- once they understand what their students are being asked to know and be able to do on the new assessment.

Really, they are great questions for all teachers to be asking, no matter where they teach.