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As the debate rages over how best to improve American educational outcomes, two important acronyms come up a lot — PARCC and PISA.  Here is a quick explanation of both.

PARCC For The Common Core

What is PARCC?

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) is a test developed by the learning conglomerate, Pearson. It attempts to measure higher-order learning as required by the Common Core State Standards in reading, writing and mathematics for grades 3-12.

PARCC is an attempt to capture deep understanding and critical thinking skills using a variety of question formats, not just multiple choice.   Rather than focus on single narrow skills, the questions test applied learning skills in multiple areas and probe for the understanding of concepts as opposed to just methods and facts.

PARCC is one of two groups that received funding for developing general assessments around the Common Core.  The other group, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), is a service provided by University of California, Los Angeles, governed by member states/territories and funded with member state/territory fees.  It has 20 member states, from California to Maine and is rolling out new common core-directed tests, and is also running into parent and school opposition.

What is PARCC replacing?

Many states are replacing their state proficiency standard with PARCC.  For example, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System is a well-respected test, but it relies mainly on multiple choice and tests proficiency and knowledge as opposed to learning and thinking.  Massachusetts launched PARCC in 2015.

Why is PARCC controversial?

In 2010, when PARCC was launched, 23 states signed on.  In 2015 only 12 states remain: Arkansas, Colorado, District of Columbia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, and Rhode Island.

Most states have pulled out due to political pressures surrounding Common Core. For instance, Florida pulled out in 2013 citing unconstitutional involvement by the federal government in states’ affairs.  Even in states that do participate there is a disparity:  39% of Montclair, New Jersey school district students from grades 3 to 11 opted out of taking the PARCC exam in 2015.

Another source of concern has been Pearson’s for-profit status. Pearson received $186 million in funding from the Federal Government as part of their Race to the Top program. This has created suspicions, particularly among teachers, that PARCC is corporate welfare.

PISA: Program for International Student Assessment

Discussions about the US education system often cite America’s PISA ranking.

What is PISA?

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a series of comprehensive reading, math and science tests conducted every three years by the OECD countries.  It tests thousands of 15 year old students in 65 countries and measures general competencies such as collaborative problem solving.

Because of its thoroughness and rigor, and because it is designed to assess functional skills as opposed to curriculum-based, PISA is far and away the most respected measure of international student comparisons.

Why is PISA important?

Most countries participate in the testing because they value the outside assessment of their education system.

Despite spending more per student than most countries in the world, and having the most educated parents in the world — normally highly correlated to student outcomes — US students do not fare well on PISA.  Between 2000 (the first measurement year) and 2012, America’s scores have been flat to down slightly.  Because of gains in other countries however, mainly in Asia, the US ranking has dropped from around 15th to 20th in 2000 to 24th to 36th in 2012.

As importantly, PISA makes available state test results placing them in the country rankings.  This testing highlighted the extreme differences between states.

If Massachusetts were a country, its students would rank 9th in the world, with Vermont and Connecticut not far behind.

At the other end, the following states would rank 80th or lower, on a par with Kazakhstan, Mexico, Bulgaria, Trinidad and Tobago, and Uruguay: Nevada, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Hawaii, Alabama, West Virginia, New Mexico, Louisiana, the District of Columbia and Mississippi.

These wide discrepancies in state education standards as picked up by PISA are a big part of the motivation behind the Common Core which seeks to unify American education standards.

A PISA Alternative: TIMSS and PIRLS

There are lesser-known alternative international tests — Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).  These tests assess math, science and reading for 4th and 8th graders in 41 countries on a 4-year cycle using similar rigor to PISA.

TIMSS and PIRLS are run in a collaboration of Boston College and The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA).

While PISA focuses on higher-order thinking, TIMSS and PIRLS measure how well the student absorbs the curriculum.  It’s more about mastering method and knowing facts than being able to apply knowledge, reason and think creatively.

For example, TIMSS will present an equation to solve whereas PISA will present a real world problem and ask what equation can you write to define and solve this problem? TIMSS and PIRLS better fit the current focus of the current fact- and method-based US curriculum and so the USA typically fares better in these tests  (ranked 9th in 2011 in 8th grade maths).

While many educators and educational activists rail against PISA, preferring the TIMSS and PIRLS comparisons, the reality is that the future of education lies in the reading skills measured by PISA.