The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) consortium, made up of 12 states and the District of Columbia, developed an assessment to measure student progress toward meeting new state learning standards, known as Common Core. Even before the first student had taken the new test, the consortium faced hostile media coverage and state legislative threats fueled by rampant misinformation. Several legislators and state departments of education were under fire and beginning to reconsider giving the assessments to their students. Parents in several states joined the movement to opt their children out of taking the test.
VOX set out to develop a comprehensive and proactive campaign at the state level to develop effective messages; empower PARCC consortium states to communicate those messages; build a more cohesive network of support among key third-party organizations; and engage supportive administrators, teachers and parents. VOX also worked to strengthen relationships with state-based education groups and coordinate their efforts in support of the first administration of PARCC.
Through a message summit and message testing, VOX worked to develop new messaging that would explain the assessment and its benefits for students to a wider audience, focusing on parents and business leaders in particular. Research in a cross section of participating states demonstrated that messaging had to focus on the immediate benefits of assessments to support every student’s success on the journey to college and career readiness by graduation.
This led to a set of consistent, overarching messages that could be customized and communicated at the state level. We operated a “war room” to plan and support the communications strategy, handle rapid response, develop consistent materials and content for customization by PARCC states, and engage in long-term communications planning.
VOX worked with the PARCC communications team, as well as the public information officers for each state department of education, to develop a proactive media plan focusing on both national education and key state education reporters. The plan included the placement of op-eds, state-by-state media webinars to showcase the test, opening up the scoring and performance-level-setting processes to journalists and explaining the score report. Media coverage turned from a focus on the alleged collapse of the consortium, opt-outs and doubts about the assessment, to an emphasis on the successful completion of testing and neutral and positive coverage about the goals of the assessment. The success of the first administration and the testing platform provided a positive lift for proactive efforts around scoring, performance-level setting and score releases.
While political pressures continued to threaten consortium participation in several states, VOX supported state educators and advocates to overcome legislative opposition in the majority of states and maintain focus and stability when two states ultimately withdrew from the consortium.
Meetings of state educators to set performance levels for the assessments offered an opportunity to provide insight into this rigorous state-led process and promote understanding of the score reports with stakeholders and the media. VOX worked with PARCC to open up this process and to engage educators to explain the importance of quality assessments to improve instruction and foster student success. We also began regular outreach with education, business and civil rights groups and worked with them to engage their supporters, participate in conferences and add their supportive voices to the public debate.
With significant student- and educator-focused messaging and content produced through engagement, VOX developed customized websites for parents and educators to help them navigate their students’ score reports and understand the results in order to improve instruction. Working closely with participating states and national, state and local partners to promote UnderstandTheScore.org, the site has been accessed by tens of thousands of parents, teachers and other stakeholders seeking information to support their students’ education.
During the 2015-2016 school year, states successfully administered the PARCC assessment to more than 5 million students in 11 states and the District of Columbia. By the end of the year, more detailed and useful information on student learning was presented to parents, teachers and schools across participating states without the anticipated backlash over lower proficiency scores.
Despite continued national and state debates over assessments, our integrated communications campaign, which utilized virtually every tool in the modern advocacy toolbox in a coordinated manner, enabled PARCC to successfully navigate legislative, public opinion and grassroots challenges alike. As a result, the consortium began the 2016-2017 school year with a firm foundation of state support, a more student-focused narrative and a new operating model that provides states the flexibility and autonomy to access the highest-quality assessment and learning tools in the country.