New York State School Boards Association

National tests could replace Regents exams

On Board Online • February 21, 2011

By Brian M. Butry
Communications Coordinator 

In three years, Regents exams in English and math may be a thing of the past. By the 2014-15 school year, students in New York probably will take a series of computer-based assessments based on the new national common core standards.

Existing assessment systems used by various states are not challenging enough to measure college and career readiness, and it’s impossible to compare students from different parts of the country, according to a 26-state consortium called the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). The 26 states educate more than 60 percent – or 31 million – of the K-12 public school students in the United States.

New York is one of 11 states in the consortium that have pledged to lead the development of a national P-12 assessment system aligned to the common core standards in English language arts (ELA) and mathematics. The others are Arizona, the District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Tennessee.

The federal government has given the group $170 million to develop a national P-12 assessment system aligned to the common core standards in English language arts (ELA) and mathematics.

But several members of the New York State Board of Regents have expressed mixed feelings about the plan, including Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch.

“I want to make sure everyone understands what we’re agreeing to,” Tisch said numerous times during a recent committee meeting.

Tisch’s comments prompted fellow Regents Harry Phillips, James Tallon, Rogers Tilles and others to question the value of PARCC and where New York was headed with its assessment program.

State Education Commissioner David Steiner is much more positive on the prospect of national assessments. He told members of the Board of Regents at its February meeting: “This is an opportunity to develop real, formative assessments. These will be much better than what the country has been able to develop up to now.”

He said the United States has been put at a “serious disadvantage” globally because of a lack of homogenous standards and assessments. The new, national assessment system will be “anchored in what it takes to be successful in college and careers,” Steiner said.

In fact, more than 200 higher education institutions, including some of the largest in the country, have agreed to help develop the tests, according to the group. The goal is for those institutions to be able to use results of the new assessments to place students in appropriate level courses.

Regents Vice Chancellor Milton Cofield expressed reservations about New York adopting a national cut score determination for proficiency.

He said the term “college-ready”  has been thrown around too often without states agreeing what the term means.

Steiner pointed out that while there would be a national baseline “proficiency cut score”  among the participating states, New York would continue to set its own graduation requirements. This could potentially give students around the state a leg-up when it comes time to head off to college or enter the job market.

Along with Deputy Commissioner John King, Assistant Commissioner David Abrams and recently hired Regents Senior Fellow for Assessment Kristen Huff, Steiner repeatedly assured the Regents that the PARCC initiative parallels the Regents reform agenda.

For example, the new proposed assessment system would have students take assessments several times during the school year, closer to when they learn the material, rather than waiting for one big test at the end of the year.

Teachers and principals will be able to see how students are progressing towards achieving the standards at different points in the school year, allowing them to adjust instructional practices or give extra support to students who need it, according to the consortium.

Some questions remain unanswered. For example, what courses need to be required to ensure there is alignment with the common core standards? How will local accountability systems evolve to take into account PARCC assessments? And how will interventions be triggered for students not meeting proficiency scores on the PARCC assessments?

“Committing to prepare all students for college and careers is the easy part,”  said Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester, who also chairs the PARCC governing board. “The harder and more important task is to ensure that higher standards are taught in every classroom and that teachers and students have the tools they need to succeed.”

Regents Chancellor Tisch used terms like “federal encroachment” and “very prescriptive”  to describe PARCC’s emerging role in assessments.

In the same way that school board members and superintendents have expressed dismay over a shift in decision-making authority from localities to state and federal officials in recent years, Tisch and other Regents seemed to lament the prospect of the state board losing independence and authority as PARCC emerges as a new, powerful player in public education.

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