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For a few weeks, Denver at center of PARCC testing world

The basement conference rooms of a Denver hotel are ground zero for setting the performance levels of students in Colorado and other states on last spring’s PARCC language arts and math tests.

Dozen of educators gathered Monday to begin setting the five performance levels – sometimes called “cut scores” – for the two sets of tests given to Colorado students in grades 9-11.

“It’s exhausting,” said Marti Shirley, a high school math teacher in Mattoon, Ill. “But it’s invigorating in a way, too.”

Shirley and about 120 other teachers, administrators and college professors are meeting in Denver this week to set cut scores for high school language arts and math tests. Similar panels will gather in Denver during the last two weeks of August to set proficiency levels for elementary and middle school test results.

The educators do their work in panels of about 20 members each. Six groups are working in Denver this week.

Officials from PARCC and a group of panelists met with reporters Wednesday to explain the process and reflect on what it means.

Because the PARCC tests are designed to be harder than Colorado’s old TCAP exams and other states’ past tests, smaller percentages of students are expected to be ranked in the top proficiency levels. Panelists were asked repeatedly about that gap between how students actually perform and how they should perform.

They all came down on the side of setting high expectations.

“We’ve got to raise the standard if we want to do better. … The only way to do that is to keep raising the bar,” said Robin Helms, a math teacher at Wray High School on Colorado’s eastern plains. She’s serving on one of the panels.

“Students only give you what you ask them, so you have to push,” said Katherine Horodowich, an English teacher at Hot Springs High School in Truth or Consequences, N.M. “We have to set the bar higher.”

Shirley said there’s wide agreement among educators “that these standards are attainable. Are they attainable tomorrow? That’s not the case. … Trust us. Give us the benefit of the doubt that we know what we’re doing.”

The overall goal of the Common Core State Standards, on which the tests are based, and of the tests themselves is that high school students should be ready for college or to go to work and that younger students are prepared for the work in the next grade.

How performance setting works

The panels will be setting the scores needed for a student to be ranked in one of five performance levels.

“They are making recommendations about how good is good enough,” explained Mary Ann Snider, a Rhode Island education official who works with PARCC.

Each PARCC member state selected 20 educators to serve on the panels. The high school panels started this week with two days of intensive training and began setting levels on Wednesday.

A key tool for the panels are the detailed “performance level descriptors” that lay out the knowledge and skills that students need to demonstrate to be rated in each performance level. (See an example of a descriptor as the bottom of this article.)

Here’s how the panels work:

  • Members work through test question one by one.
  • Panelists individually decide what scores on a particular question should be assigned to each performance level.
  • Members then share their individual scores with each other, learn what the group’s median score was for each level and also learn the median score of all students in a particular grade on a test.
  • Based on that shared knowledge, individual panelists reconsider their individual decisions, and the whole process is repeated until the group reaches consensus.

The panelists who met with reporters had positive things to say about the process.

“None of us are shy. We have no problem telling people we disagree,” said Loretta Holloway, an English professor at Framingham State University in Massachusetts.

“It’s not like we all sit down and make one judgment. It’s a conversation,” said Helms. “We’re spending a whole week looking at this.”

What went on before

Before the panelists could begin work, the tests taken by 5 million children had to be scored.

The Pearson testing company used about 14,000 scorers at home or at more than a dozen centers around the country to score the tests, which took about a month per content area. Scoring was done by grade level, not by state. And individual scorers worked on individual questions, not entire tests.

Scorers assigned points for each answer, which could be as many as six points, depending on the question. To be hired, scorers had to have a four-year degree in a relevant field and pass a scoring “test” after being trained. Samples of scorers’ work were double checked by testing experts.

What’s next

After the high school panels finish their work, the education commissioners from the eight PARCC governing board states (including Colorado) will meet to review the recommended cut scores. The commissioners can make changes. Higher education executives from the states also will review the cut scores on high school tests.

The education commissioners will meet again Sept. 9 to review the middle and elementary school cut points.

Public release of scores, including parent reports similar to the one pictured above, will come in late fall or early winter, PARCC officials said Wednesday. In future years results should be available in June or July.

Colorado uses test scores, plus growth data based on multiple years of scores, as part of the system that rates schools and districts. A law passed by the 2015 legislature created a one-year timeout in the accreditation system, so PARCC scores from last spring won’t be used to rate schools and districts next year.

The state’s non-PARCC tests for science and social studies use four performance levels – distinguished, strong, moderate and limited. Students with distinguished or strong command are considered to be ready for college work, or for the next grade.

The State Board of Education will have to fine-tune the existing accreditation system in order to account for PARCC’s five performance levels.

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