Flickr photo by dmelchiordiaz.
46 states and Washington, D.C. have adopted and pledged to implement the Common Core standards and assessments, but authentic implementation of the standards remains elusive. And it’s not because states lack aligned curriculum materials or technical capacity. Rather, states have not yet enacted policies to legitimize the standards within higher education. The college and career readiness goal embedded throughout the Common Core is hollow unless universities and employers accept the premise and buy in to the notion that students mastering these standards are prepared for success.
Recognizing this need, PARCC, one of the consortia readying Common Core-aligned tests, has adopted Policy-Level Performance Level Descriptors and a College- and Career-Ready Determination policy (PLDs and CCRD, for short). For the record, yes, that is a lot of jargon. And yes, it does sound mundane. But in the effort to measure college and career readiness, these kinds of policies are ground zero. So it’s worth translating the alphabet soup into English.
PLDs are the number of scoring levels on the PARCC assessments. Just like the AP exams, there will be five: distinguished, strong, moderate, partial, and minimal command of the knowledge, skills, and practices in the Common Core. Each PLD is described both in terms of its content and its policy implications – in other words, how the score relates to the standards and how it relates to students’ postsecondary readiness. For example, students at level 3 in English have a moderate command of the standards and “will likely need academic support to be prepared to engage successfully in entry-level, credit-bearing courses.” You can read all of the PLDs here.
The policy for identifying college- and career-ready students is the CCRD, and it is linked to the PLDs. Here are the Cliffs Notes: students will need to score at level 4 or 5 to be considered academically college- and career-ready.
More specifically, students with the CCRD distinction in English Language Arts that enroll in entry-level courses requiring college-level reading and writing skills have a 75 percent chance of earning a C grade in those courses. To their credit, PARCC fully admits that their assessments do not measure critical skills that also contribute to postsecondary preparation, like time management, motivation, and study habits – a big reason PARCC couched the likelihood of students’ success even with a CCRD from the consortium.
But PARCC also claims that students earning a CCRD “will be able to enter directly into certain entry-level, credit-bearing courses in those subject areas without having to take placement tests.” Isn’t this premature? The consortium has no evidence to back up its policies and convince higher education to trust their determinations. It all sound good, and postsecondary officials involved in drafting the CCRD signed off, but none of it is real yet.
Until cut scores for the PLDs and CCRD are set (in the spring and summer of 2015) and validated with evidence of students’ postsecondary outcomes (in 2017, as the first PARCC cohort graduates high school in 2016), it is difficult to imagine higher education changing placement policies and allowing students with a 4 on the PARCC tests to enter directly into certain courses. If the AP model is any indication of PARCC’s future, uniform policies may be unlikely even within institutions. At many colleges and universities, decisions to grant credit or exempt students from courses are set by individual academic departments, rather than at a system- or state-level. State policymakers may need to legislate or regulate the CCRD, rather than rely on public institutions to voluntarily comply. But this kind of direct involvement could undermine acceptance of the new assessments, as institutions are used to having autonomy to do what they like with students’ results from the SAT, ACT, or AP exams.
These comparisons between the new assessments and traditional college readiness exams were made stark in Whiteboard Advisors' latest Education Insider poll. 96 percent did not think the Common Core tests would replace AP as a measure of high school achievement. Why? Many Insiders cited AP’s “long track record,” “brand value,” and “credibility” with postsecondary institutions, teachers, parents, and students. Building a stellar reputation takes time, and in the near-term, nearly half of the Insiders believe states will instead create their own tests, with several calling out ACT as a likely vendor. This makes sense given that ACT is no longer working with PARCC, but rather developing its own bevy of college- and career-ready assessments.
Again, the pieces are in place for a college readiness turf battle between the College Board, ACT, and the consortia-developed Common Core tests. The two new policies from PARCC provided much-needed details to educators and policymakers (after you translate them to English, that is), but they did little to change the overall dynamic. PARCC added more acronyms to the alphabet soup, but little clarity when it comes to how higher education will determine college and career readiness.