Last week, students across Tennessee began taking their annual TCAP exams. In a few years, however, those tests will be replaced by computer-based assessments taken by students across a consortium of two dozen states: the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC. As students were taking their exams, higher education leaders from PARCC states met at Tennessee State University in Nashville to plan strategies for informing their colleagues and the general public about the sea change in assessments soon coming to Tennessee.

Beginning with the 2014-15 school year, students in 24 states will take assessments in English/Language Arts (ELA) and math that are shared and aligned with the Common Core State Standards in grades 3-11. PARCC will bring several key benefits:

  • Students will know whether they are on track to be ready for college by the end of high school
  • Teachers, through interim assessments during the school year, will be able to use results to identify areas where students need the most support in advance of end-of-year exams
  • Parents will receive clear information on how well their children are progressing on a regular basis
  • States, for the first time, will be able to compare student achievement levels by a set of common indicators

Although common assessments present evident benefits for adopting states, the challenges for K-12 education are clear. Assessments must be aligned with new standards in ELA and math, and the processes for implementing them and sharing results must be transparent. As I wrote a few weeks ago, instructional materials must align with the standards on which the PARCC assessments will be based. And, educators must receive the training and support they need to prepare students for assessments that bring both a higher level of rigor and different method of administration than they have experienced.

The two-day conference at Tennessee State focused on the opportunities and challenges anticipated for higher education as this new era in student assessment approaches. Results of PARCC assessments will determine whether eleventh grade students are “ready” to pursue credit-bearing courses in their first year of college, avoiding remedial courses that can delay graduation to the point that many students fail to complete their college programs of study. But we—as Tennesseans and as part of a consortium of two dozen states—first have to determine what it means to be ready. Does a SCORE indicating a junior in high school could earn a “C” in freshman writing mean she is ready for college? Should we differentiate whether that SCORE indicates the same level of readiness across both four- and two-year institutions? How can we be sure the assessment results are reliable? What provisions will be made for students with disabilities and English learners? These and other big questions will continue to guide this planning work.

In the near term, higher education faculty members will review some 10,000 test items under development for inclusion on the eventual PARCC assessments. Districts are beginning to address the technological needs associated with administering standardized assessments to students across grades 3-11 on computers. Teacher preparation programs must produce graduates who are well prepared, well supported, and technologically savvy to adequately prepare their students for success. “Bridge courses” are under development for high school seniors whose SCOREs on their 11th grade assessments did not indicate they would be ready for college—a set of courses intended to move the work of remediation from the first year of college back to the final year of high school.

A second consortium of 26 states, Smarter Balanced, led by Washington State, is developing a separate set of common assessments. That consortium will address comparable challenges in putting together its assessments and strategies for implementation, learning lessons from which PARCC may be able to draw—just as Smarter Balanced should learn from the experiences of PARCC states.

Ultimately, the collaboration necessitated by the move to common assessments means more engagement and lesson-sharing across state lines, more collaboration between the higher and K-12 education sectors, and more focus on preparing students in Tennessee and all states for success beyond high school. The TCAP may be going away in two years, but the needs of our students to prepare for a competitive future will not.

Congratulations to Mike Krause, Director of Academic Affairs at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, and the many team members from Achieve who brought the PARCC conference to Nashville!