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This past spring, some 5 million students took new end-of-year tests in math and English. They're aligned to the Common Core learning standards, and they're considered harder than the tests they replaced. This is important because until last year, it was all but impossible to compare students across state lines - well, not anymore. One problem - the results won't be released for a while - not until the fall. Cory Turner of the NPR Ed Team explains the holdup.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Those tests have all been read and the answers have been tallied. But adding up right answers doesn't really tell you how a child did. For that, you need cut scores.
MARY ANN SNIDER: The cut score is the manifestation of how good is good enough.
TURNER: Mary Ann Snider is chief academic officer for the Rhode Island Department of Education. And it's not just about good enough. It's also about separating excellent from pretty good or good enough from not yet. Snider is hard at work helping nail down cut scores for those 5 million tests. She says it's not as simple as using the old A-through-F, 10-point scale, where 70 percent is the traditional cut off for good enough.
SNIDER: I don't know that I want my pilot to know 70 percent of the content for flying a plane. I'd like him to be closer to 90 or 100 percent.
TURNER: It's a balancing act, says Patte Barth, director of the Center for Public Education.
PATTE BARTH: Establishing cut scores is part science, part art. But it's also part political.
TURNER: Barth remembers the early days of the No Child Left Behind law, when Washington told states they'd be punished if students weren't proficient. But since states used wildly different standards and tests, they got to set their own cut scores, too. As a result...
BARTH: ...They found a huge, huge range of performance levels.
TURNER: Many states simply lowered the bar, creating the illusion of improvement, which is one reason Snider, from Rhode Island, found herself in a Denver hotel last week.
SNIDER: The hotel is abuzz with PARCC. When you go into the restaurants, they just look at you, and they're like PARCC? We're like yes. And they're like OK, go eat there.
TURNER: PARCC is P-A-R-C-C, a group of states that adopted the Common Core standards and agreed to develop new tests for them. These are the big tests and the 5 million kids we mentioned in the intro, all waiting on cut scores. So last week, teachers and educators hand-picked by their states joined Snider in Denver. They poured into the hotel's cavernous basement ballrooms to debate those elusive scores. If I had tape of the sessions, this is where I'd play it. But PARCC wouldn't let me take my microphone downstairs. The group has agreed on five student performance levels. Five is what PARCC calls distinguished command of material. One is minimal.
LORRETTA HOLLOWAY: Would a two be able to do this and this?
TURNER: Lorretta Holloway teaches English at Framingham State University in Massachusetts. She was on the panel for the 11th grade English test.
HOLLOWAY: Not should they. I'm thinking yes because they all should do everything, right? But would they really?
TURNER: Holloway says she's constantly weighing what students likely know - the real - against the aspirational - what should they know. In that balance, says Mary Ann Snider, is a more honest test.
SNIDER: We have to get enough of that right so that we're not giving kids a false sense of accomplishment.
TURNER: Unlike those early days of No Child Left Behind.
MARTI SHIRLEY: Yeah, it might be a tough test.
TURNER: Marti Shirley teaches high school math in Mattoon, Ill.
SHIRLEY: But you know what? It's going to give us a true reflection of where our students are and what growth they need.
TURNER: Now, that may sound good. But remember what Patte Barth said earlier?
BARTH: Establishing cut scores is part political.
TURNER: Well, PARCC has struggled mightily to win the political fight over raising the bar.
BARTH: States should expect those scores to be lower. And if they're smart, they're communicating that to the public.
TURNER: What politician wants to preside over a huge drop in student test scores? Not long ago, half of all states were involved with PARCC. Today, it's seven, plus D.C. And quietly, in Denver, some teachers worry that the decline of PARCC will mean a return to the days when many state tests just weren't honest. Professor Lorretta Holloway says somebody has to be honest with the freshmen who are surprised to find they can't keep up in her college writing class.
HOLLOWAY: Sit in my office with me when I'm passing out the pudding and the Kleenex while they're in tears because they are working, and they're still behind.
TURNER: In the coming weeks, more teachers will sit in that windowless hotel basement in Denver, debating the scores and skills that separate good enough from not quite. And they'll do it with the weight of five million tests and the fate of five million students on their shoulders. Cory Turner, NPR News, Denver.
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