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At the very end of 2018, a New Jersey appeals court struck down the use of the PARCC test (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) as a graduation requirement for public high school students. That’s great news for the many people, including me, frustrated by the excesses of standardized testing.

However, even among some otherwise happy with the decision, there has been contemplation and a little hand-wringing, some of it in line with, “Okay, but now what?” The gist of many of these sentiments was perhaps expressed by N.J. Senator Teresa Ruiz, chair of the Senate Education Committee, who said, “I don’t care what we call it or who the vendor is; we need a benchmark.”

To me, there’s no reason the “now what?” has to involve high-stakes standardized testing or in fact any kind of unified benchmark. I believe it’s only a lack of creativity that has led us to that thinking in the first place.

Public schools do not have to be subjected to unimaginative, cookie-cutter standardized tests to find out/reveal if they are doing their job. Consider how many other entities/institutions in our culture are subjected to the kind of battering ram of assessment that schools are.

Why can’t elementary-high school education oversight bodies get serious about assessment by developing holistic methods of actually getting to know what a school is and does. Surprisingly, higher ed and some private schools already have this kind of structure: It’s called accreditation. On a rolling basis, institutions get a visit from an accreditation team. That team digs into many different aspects of the institution. It looks at data. It talks to people. It walks the campus.

I was on an accreditation team for a university, and I was impressed at the level of detail, care, and thought that went into the visit, both on site and before.

This is a short article, and I don’t pretend to know all the numbers. But I do know big money is spent on testing. How could that investment be transferred to a structure of evaluative teams, expert panels if you will, that would visit schools? These teams, comprised of people with a range of expertise, would be provided access to data.?The team could look at school documents and artifacts. The team could also, importantly, talk,?in focus groups or interviews, to district stakeholders, from administrators to teachers to parents to students to alumni.

They could observe classrooms.

The result could be an easily digestible,?publicly accessible report.

Interestingly, many schools probably wouldn’t need this kind of evaluation. For many schools, stakeholders are happy. Support from the community, both in presence and money, is already there. Some number of schools wouldn’t need these detailed visits as regularly.

Why couldn’t these team visit focus on schools that aren’t in ideal circumstances? A big difference from college accreditation is that part of the process would be making strong, evidence-based recommendations that these schools need more money. So everyone could be incentivized to work together to provide a transparent, formative visit.

Testing, by the way, could still be part of these processes. Schools that are doing fine could conduct standardized tests as one simplified way of indicating they’re doing their job, kind of like it’s no surprise when big chunks of kids from well-supported schools with highly-educated demographics do well on the SATs.

But schools whose tests only tell one part of the story would have a much better opportunity to share their narrative.

It’s important that we shake ourselves free from the illusion that we need some kind of national educational benchmark, not to mention one that can be represented by a test. Instead, why couldn’t a team visit-type system help perform this assessment work to provide a more in-depth look at how your school is performing?

Again, it is worth re-iterating that many schools would not need a regular visit. Even a look at alumni–I believe a terribly overlooked component of school performance at all levels–might help determine that the school is doing just fine.

Why can’t we explore a team-based, mixed qualitative and quantitative approach to educational effectiveness? There are logistical obstacles, but to address them, we first have to abandon the darn-near religion of standardized testing, one driven by the faith that those rows of little bubbles tell us how we’re doing.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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One Response to “No PARCC, no problem–if we get creative”

  1. I LOVE this idea.

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