The Future of Student Assessments in Arkansas

It’s no secret that the Common Core State Standards are controversial, both here and throughout the country. I still don’t fully understand why, and I highly suspect much of it is political, but regardless, a controversy exists. In March, Governor Asa Hutchinson announced he had appointed individuals to serve on the Governor’s Council on Common Core Review, a council created by executive order for the purpose of making recommendations as to the future of the Common Core and the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) assessments in Arkansas.

Last week, the Council, which was chaired by Lt. Governor Tim Griffin, recommended that the state stop participating in the PARCC assessments and instead test students using the ACT Aspire assessments. You may recall that this past school year was the first year the PARCC assessments were implemented throughout the state. The reasoning behind the recommendation isn’t too clear, though it’s my understanding some schools had issues with the online administration of PARCC. Opponents of Common Core might cheer this recommendation as a win for their cause, as Common Core and PARCC have been improperly seen as one in the same. Just to clarify, Common Core and PARCC are not the same thing. Common Core refers to the standards for math and English that are taught at each grade level. The Common Core has been fully implemented in Arkansas for several years now. PARCC refers to the set of assessments or exams given to students to test their knowledge of the standards. Until this past school year, Arkansas was still testing students with the old Arkansas benchmark exams, so PARCC has only been in use here for one year. PARCC is not the only assessment that can be used for Common Core. An alternative assessment consortium, Smarter Balanced, exists as well and also provides assessments tied to Common Core.

What some may not realize is that the ACT Aspire assessment is also aligned with Common Core, and since this is the exam chosen by the Governor’s Council, it seems extremely unlikely that Common Core is going away anytime soon. It’s ridiculous to think that the Council would choose an exam aligned with Common Core, and then recommend to do away with Common Core completely.

Though the Council’s recommendation was met with at least some criticism, many assumed it was a done deal. The change in assessments has to be approved by the Arkansas State Board of Education, but why would Governor Hutchinson publicly ask the Department of Education to “begin taking the necessary steps for the transaction to ACT and ACT Aspire” if he didn’t already know that he had the votes needed from the State Board to do so? That’s why it may have come as a shock to some last week when the State Board, in a 7-1 vote, rejected the Council’s recommendation to do away with the PARCC assessment.

Stability seemed to be the underlying concern for some board members. If Arkansas were to switch to the ACT Aspire assessment for the 2015-2016 school year, as the Council recommended, then it would mean that Arkansas students would be taking three different assessments in three years, and that puts teachers and administrators who are held accountable for student test scores in a difficult position. It also leaves education officials with unreliable data, as it’s likely that student test scores may vary depending on the user interface or platform of each particular assessment. So what happens now? The Department of Education must renew its contract with the test company that makes the PARCC assessment by July 1, 2015, in order to administer the assessment during the 2015-2016 school year. If ADE does so, then the contract, like all state contracts, will most likely have to be reviewed by the Arkansas Legislative Council. Some Republican legislators don’t like the State Board’s decision and will certainly try to fight it when it comes up for review before the Legislative Council. The only way, as I understand it, that the legislature can require ADE and the State Board to enter into a contract with ACT, however, is through legislation, which will require Governor Hutchinson to call a special session, and that’s just not something I would expect at this time. Rather, I would expect both sides to seek a compromise, and I would hope that it happens soon so that our teachers and students know what to expect by the beginning of this school year.

UPDATE (6-23-2015): Maybe there won’t be a compromise after all. Yesterday, Governor Hutchinson delivered a letter to our new Education Commission, Johnny Key, who was appointed by Governor Hutchinson to that role earlier this year, directing him to withdraw the State of Arkansas from the PARCC Consortium immediately. The Commissioner has the power to do so per the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) the State entered into with PARCC back in 2010. I still don’t believe, however, the Governor or the legislature has the power, without support from the State Board of Education, to select a new assessment without legislation. This leaves us with no assessment for the 2015-2016 school year. The State has to give standardized assessments during every school year in order to comply with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) or risk losing federal money, and at this point, there’s not a lot of time to start from scratch. Perhaps this will persuade a few members of the State Board to rethink their vote on using the ACT Aspire Assessment.

UPDATE II (7-20-15): The State Board did indeed rethink its vote on the ACT Aspire Assessment, with a little help from three new Board members recently appointed by Governor Hutchinson. One of the new Board members just happens to have served on the Governor’s Council on Common Core Review, the council that actually made the recommendation for the testing change last month, just prior to her appointment on the State Board. As I’ve stressed on this blog before, I’m not an educator, and I try not to second-guess the decisions made by those who are, but I simply don’t like the precedent this sets. It overwhelmingly reeks of a simple political move by the administration to satisfy the anti-common core crowd (though it really shouldn’t, as I noted above). Regardless of the assessment chosen, there should be public confidence in the vetting and bidding process by which a choice is made, and there can’t be confidence in this decision. Unfortunately, our students and teachers, who are now facing a third straight year with a new assessment, are the ones who pay.


  1. I am a retired teacher with a grandchild in school in North Carolina. I believe that too little time was allotted to teaching teachers how to teach the Common Core math curriculum in a number of states. By and large non-educators rushed into the decision to join the Common Core approach to education. In addition, I believe there was a lack of understanding concerning child development. The readiness of children within a grade will vary significantly. Was this a consideration in the rush to join Common Core?

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