It is heartening to see a robust discussion on the use of the PARCC test in Rhode Island’s public schools, but the state Department of Education seems to have made up its mind: before the test was even off the ground it was already actively encouraging school districts to use the PARCC to penalize students as early as next year.

Before having any chance to meaningfully examine how this untried test is working, or to determine whether, like the NECAP, it will have a disproportionate and devastating impact on poor and minority children, English Language Learners and students with disabilities, Commissioner Deborah Gist has already advised school districts they may “use PARCC results as a component in determining students’ grades” beginning as early as the upcoming 2015-16 school year. The Commissioner, with the backing of the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, has also encouraged school districts to consider using the PARCC as a high stakes graduation requirement for the Class of 2017.

In light of this push by RIDE, the biggest concern isn’t necessarily whether testing should be delayed for a year or even whether children should be able to opt out – it is whether the test results should be used punitively against students rather than as a supportive accountability tool to help them and their schools succeed. RIDE likes to claim its goal is the latter, but as we know from the NECAP debacle, it operates more like the former.
RIDE’s desire to punish kids by allowing the test to be used in this high stakes fashion so quickly is extremely troubling, especially since education officials know full well the importance of time in getting a new test like this off the ground. Last August, before changing course, the Commissioner gave good reasons why PARCC should be used as a high stakes test beginning in 2020, not 2017. As she noted then:

We need to make sure that everyone has adequate time to prepare for the implementation.  That means students having adequate support and time, families and teachers and school and district leaders need adequate time to make the changes to their support and interventions for individual students.

By instead giving school districts the option to use the test results against students a year from now, RIDE is actually doing everything it can to make sure students are not fully prepared. To make matters worse, the local implementation of such testing places pressures on students of particular school districts who embrace PARCC in this fashion, while protecting students who happen to live in more skeptical school districts.

We all want students to succeed, but this approach spells disaster, and will inevitably lead to a repeat of the fiasco surrounding the NECAP. Opting out of the PARCC test means little if students face a reduction in grades or denial of a diploma in a few years for failing to take it. Nor is it fair if students who opt in find their grades lowered because of their scores on the test. Whether one agrees or disagrees that PARCC can be a useful support tool, parents and others concerned about punitive standardized testing should be demanding first and foremost that this test not be used for high stakes graduation or grading decisions in the way that RIDE is, sadly, so hastily determined to use it.