A lot of things were wrong with Maryland's PARCC exams. The fact that they were hard wasn't one of them.

PARCC seemed like a great idea at the time. The standardized test, developed by a consortium of states as an assessment of whether students were on track to graduate college and career ready, boasted what should have been significant advantages over the hodgepodge of state-level tests it was to replace. It was designed to correspond with the Common Core standards that were adopted by nearly all states, and it offered the promise that results could be compared from state to state and year to year. Because it was computer-based, the results were supposed to be available quickly so that educators could use them as tools to design instruction for individual students. It was supposed to be cheaper, too, because a large number of states would share in development costs.

But today, Maryland is one of the last few still administering PARCC, with other holdouts like Illinois and New Jersey already shifting to new assessments. The only surprising thing about Liz Bowie’s report Tuesday that Maryland is working on a replacement is that it took us this long. PARCC became a lightning rod amid general pushback against the Common Core, much of which was fueled by politics and misunderstandings. When Comptroller Peter Franchot casts a symbolic no vote at the Board of Public Works on a contract to extend PARCC for a year, a move necessary to avoid the potential loss of federal funds, and throws in a gratuitous reference to Maryland’s post-Labor Day school start while he’s at it, you know PARCC opposition polls well.

We have supported PARCC over the years, but even we have to admit that it hasn’t worked remotely as promised. All the advantages of a multi-state test have evaporated (we, New Mexico and the District of Columbia are the only remaining PARCC states). The tests have proven cumbersome to administer, disrupting school schedules and instructional time for weeks on end every year. And the results have never come remotely quickly enough to be used to tailor interventions to individual students or even schools. We only just learned, for example, which schools in Baltimore City posted strong gains on PARCC scores last year and which didn’t, which limits the district’s ability to spread best practices in time to help this year’s crop of students. And the cumulative effect of PARCC on top of other assessments — particularly at the high school level, where students at a minimum must also take biology and government assessments to graduate and potentially take Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, the SAT, the ACT and more — was clearly too much.

But there is one complaint about PARCC we certainly do not share, which is that the test is too hard. Granted, it’s a shock to see the pass rates in even the top school systems in Maryland go from the 80s or 90s under the old Maryland School Assessment to the 50s today. But the drop reflects the hard truth that as much as we used to cheer that Maryland schools were best in the nation according to Education Week, they weren’t — or if they were, that wasn’t much to brag about. Former University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. “Brit” Kirwan put things in context in his role as chairman of a commission analyzing the state’s education system. Maryland, he says, is a middle of the pack state in a middle of the pack country, and in a globalized economy, that’s not nearly good enough.

So, by all means, make the PARCC replacement shorter. Integrate it better into our overall scheme of assessments to reduce the number of tests students are required to take. Adopt an “adaptive” design that gives students harder or easier questions depending on their demonstrated ability so that we might get more precise information about their strengths and weaknesses. But we should also make sure (as other states have done) that there is enough blending between the current assessments and the new ones that we can continue to track students’ and schools’ progress from one year to the next. And for heaven’s sake, don’t make the test easier. Students need to know where they really stand, and they need to know that we expect them to be able to compete against the very best. From the top school systems in the state to the ones with the most challenges, we do no one any favors by dumbing down our standards.

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