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What's the Point of PARCC -- or Any Other Test?

01/28/2016 02:03 pm ET | Updated Jan 28, 2016

Waiting with a neighbor at the bus stop the other day, I heard that PARCC results are starting to trickle out in Maryland, where I live.

PARCC, of course, is one of the new assessments intended to help inform parents and educators whether students are on track to graduate from high school ready for either college or career training. Eleven states administered PARCC in the spring, and because these new tests have multi-step problems and require much more in the way of knowledge and skill than most of the old state tests, a student who was proficient on old state tests may no longer be considered proficient by PARCC standards.

Writ large, this means that states that once reported that 80 or 90 percent of their students were proficient are now having to report that 30 or 40 percent are proficient. Maryland's one of those states, and it has been a bit of a shock.

But the point isn't to shock people. At least, I don't think that's the point. The point should be for parents and educators to be able to look at the new scores and think about what more their children and students need in order to be more successful.

This was the conversation I just had with my neighbor. She told me that her very smart, very inquisitive fourth-grade son scored at the top of level 3 in math. (PARCC has a five-point scale, which means that 3 is considered as approaching expectations, or almost proficient.) But her son only scored at level 1 in reading, which means he was not even close to meeting standards.

The mother wasn't particularly alarmed, though she was puzzled. She knows very little about PARCC and a lot about her son. He asks penetrating questions and clearly understands a great deal about what he is learning, she said. She was inclined to dismiss the test results as unimportant.

But when I asked her more about her son's reading, she said he didn't like to read. He much prefers her to read to him. They are in the middle of reading a pretty complex book together, and she said he has a wide and extensive vocabulary and clearly understands what they are reading. But, she added, when he reads to her she notices that he has trouble identifying words. He often guesses what words are by looking at the length of the word and the initial sound. That can lead to some pretty wild guesses, she said (think pumpkin for platform).

She said, sounding pretty exasperated, "I'll ask him, 'Does that word make any sense at all?'"

I am anything but an expert in reading, but I've talked to a bunch of experts in reading over the years, and what she said raised an alarm for me.

That may not of course be the issue with her son. But to me the point of PARCC -- or any other testing -- is to help begin that process of figuring out what more kids need in order to be successful.

This particular mother was a little leery of asking the teachers for anything above what they are already doing. She never thought her child would be a kid who needs extra help. But the PARCC results should be a signal to the school to put a plan in place to help him, and if it isn't doing so she needs to ask for it.

When I looked at the school's PARCC results on Maryland's website, it turns out that only about 7 percent of the fourth-graders scored at level 1. That means her son's school has a manageable number of kids who need really intensive help, and they don't necessarily need to rethink their core instruction the way schools with much larger numbers do. Of course, not all the kids who scored at level 1 necessarily have the same issue -- each child needs to be evaluated for what is impeding his or her success.

Again -- that's the point. A test score is a jumping off point for parents and educators to ask, "Why did this child score in that way and what more can we do to help that child be more successful?"

That's true no matter where students are -- but it is essential for those who aren't even close to meeting standards.

To learn more about PARCC, go here. Other tests that are being considered as "next generation" tests are Smarter Balanced and ACT's Aspire.

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