Grad­ing the Test

Ed­u­ca­tors and crit­ics re­flect on the ini­tial round of PARCC ex­ams


The con­tro­ver­sial PARCC (Part­ner­ship for As­sess­ment of Readi­ness for Col­lege and Ca­reers) tests dom­i­nated the head­lines this past year, and that’s not likely to change. PARCC is a con­sor­tium of states, in­clud­ing New Jersey, work­ing to cre­ate a stan­dard set of K-12 assess­ments in math and English. The tests were ad­min­is­tered in late win­ter and again in early spring.

Many ed­u­ca­tors and par­ents raised con­cerns about the tests, in­clud­ing the loss of in­struc­tional time, teach­ing to the test, con­fus­ing phras­ing for the ques­tions and the re­sults be­ing too high stakes, par­tic­u­larly for younger stu­dents. They also cited data col­lec­tion and hav­ing stu­dents take the tests on com­put­ers among their con­cerns.

How­ever, sup­port­ers of PARCC say the test gives ed­u­ca­tors, par­ents and stu­dents bet­ter in­for­ma­tion on whether stu­dents are on the right track, both in their cur­rent learn­ing and af­ter high school. They also say the tests give ed­u­ca­tors bet­ter tools for meet­ing stu­dent needs.

While dis­tricts are not ex­pected to get the re­sults from this past year’s tests un­til the new school year, some changes are al­ready be­ing made. Many dis­tricts are now pre­par­ing for another run of tests next term.

Lo­cal re­sponse

De­spite the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing PARCC, many school dis­tricts praised the ef­forts of their staffs and IT de­part­ments in ad­min­is­ter­ing the tests.

Pa­trick Fletcher, su­per­in­ten­dent of River Dell Re­gional Schools, says his dis­trict’s 1:1 lap­top ini­tia­tive – ev­ery high school stu­dent in the dis­trict has a lap­top – put them a step ahead. He says it took River Dell three days to ad­min­is­ter each round of the tests, whereas in other dis­tricts it took about 12.

“Over­all, the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the PARCC As­sess­ment went very well,” Ridge­wood Su­per­in­ten­dent of Schools Daniel Fish­bein says. “Not glitch-free, but very well when you con­sider we were im­ple­ment­ing an online as­sess­ment that was un­prece­dented in New Jersey.”

He says it was suc­cess­ful be­cause teach­ers were trained to ad­min­is­ter the as­sess­ment and “our IT depart­ment made sure our net­work and tech­nol­ogy was in great work­ing or­der.”

Mark To­back, su­per­in­ten­dent of Wayne Town­ship Public Schools, says the dis­trict’s IT Depart­ment, staff and ad­min­is­tra­tion worked well to­gether pre­par­ing for PARCC, and the “few tech­ni­cal prob­lems” had “more to do with com­put­ers than peo­ple.”

“We an­tic­i­pated that the PARCC would be in­cred­i­bly dis­rup­tive to our stu­dents and our teach­ers and as a re­sult, we did our best to main­tain our in­struc­tional pro­grams,” To­back says.

Sched­ul­ing went well at the ele­men­tary and mid­dle grade lev­els, he says, but there were prob­lems at the high school for some stu­dents.

“In par­tic­u­lar, un­der­class­men in ad­vanced classes some­times missed classes that were still held be­cause the un­der­class­men were the only stu­dents miss­ing from the class,” he says. “We did the best we could to main­tain in­struc­tion, but we did not al­ways have per­fect sched­ul­ing so­lu­tions.”

The opt-out trend

Many par­ents re­fused to al­low their chil­dren to take the PARCC tests, cit­ing, among other rea­sons, con­cerns with the type of ques­tions and all the un­knowns about what the re­sults will mean.

Some dis­tricts pro­vided al­ter­na­tive set­tings for stu­dents, while oth­ers did not. There was no di­rect guid­ance from the state so many dis­tricts im­pro­vised poli­cies af­ter the ini­tial test­ing.

Ridge­wood, for ex­am­ple, did not have an opt-out pol­icy in place. Rec­og­niz­ing, how­ever, that par­ents were not go­ing to per­mit their chil­dren to take the test, “we did de­velop pro­ce­dure for this per­sonal parental choice,” Fish­bein says.

Sim­i­larly in Wayne, To­back says ab­sent a spe­cific opt-out pol­icy, the dis­trict put prac­tices in place that may even­tu­ally be­come pol­icy.

In River Dell, the dis­trict did not of­fer an al­ter­na­tive set­ting to those who de­cided to opt-out of test­ing.

“[It was] all hands on deck,” ad­min­is­ter­ing the test, Fletcher says.

About 22 River Dell stu­dents in grades 7-11 re­fused to take the test dur­ing the first ad­min­is­tra­tion, while about 50 did not take the test the sec­ond time. Fletcher at­tributes the higher num­ber later in the year to the tests be­ing ad­min­is­tered dur­ing the same week as SATs.

For com­par­i­son, Mont­clair had 2,201 of stu­dents (47.6 per­cent) in grades 3-11 opt out dur­ing the sec­ond round of test­ing; 1,135 (28 per­cent) didn’t take it dur­ing the first round of test­ing in Ridge­wood; and about 60 stu­dents opted out dur­ing both rounds in Tea­neck.

Of­fi­cials an­tic­i­pate changes to the opt-out rules, in­clud­ing a po­ten­tial stan­dard­ized pol­icy that re­quires dis­tricts to pro­vide an al­ter­na­tive set­ting for stu­dents.

Short­en­ing test times

The PARCC Gov­ern­ing Board voted in late spring to stream­line the assess­ments with three changes:

• Re­duce test­ing hours by 60 min­utes in math and 30 min­utes in English lan­guage arts.

• Con­sol­i­date the two test­ing pe­ri­ods – one for math and one for English lan­guages arts – to one.

• Re­duce the num­ber of test­ing units by two or three for all stu­dents.

Ac­cord­ing to the PARCC web­site, the changes were made in re­sponse to school dis­trict and teacher feed­back.

“This is a good start,” says Ju­lia Ru­bin, a found­ing mem­ber of the grass­roots Save Our Schools, “but they have a long way to go.”

Fletcher says that in ad­di­tion to the com­bined test­ing win­dow, some dis­tricts will also have an ex­tra sec­tion of English or math so ques­tions can be field tested.

He “whole­heart­edly” sup­ports the changes to test times.

“Ev­ery spring we ad­min­is­ter an exam by The Col­lege Board to ju­niors called the SAT for three hours on a Satur­day. The re­sult will have a pro­found ef­fect on a child, could pos­si­bly be for their whole life,” Fletcher says. “The fact that it takes nine hours to test a third grader doesn’t make much sense to me.”

In ad­di­tion to a law defin­ing test re­fusal, three bills re­lated to PARCC were on the ta­ble at the New Jersey Se­nate this sum­mer:

• Freeze test re­sults for three years be­fore they are used to eval­u­ate chil­dren, teach­ers and schools.

• Pro­hibit tests prior to third grade.

• In­form fam­i­lies of all stan­dard­ized tests ad­min­is­tered by school dis­tricts and char­ter schools, in­clud­ing their uses and costs.

Re­sults com­ing in

Re­sults from the PARCC tests are ex­pected at the be­gin­ning of the school year. What will be done with those re­sults, how­ever, is still un­cer­tain.

“No dis­trict should use the PARCC re­sults in con­se­quen­tial ways un­til it is val­i­dated, just as we would not want a med­i­cal test to be used with­out first prov­ing it is ac­cu­rate and un­bi­ased,” Save Our Schools said in a state­ment af­ter the new test­ing win­dows were an­nounced.

Ru­bin is con­cerned that a large num­ber of stu­dents will not be con­sid­ered pro­fi­cient when the re­sults come in.

“If they keep the cut (pro­fi­ciency) score at what they are pro­ject­ing, I think there will be a mas­sive upris­ing,” Ru­bin says.

To­back says that be­cause PARCC is an “untested” test, the Wayne dis­trict has “no plans to use the PARCC for any place­ment de­ci­sions un­til we know more about the ac­tual re­sults.

“Once we have the re­sults, we will be able to take a first step in de­ter­min­ing whether the test should be used in the fu­ture for place­ments,” he says. “In the in­terim, we will be more de­pen­dent on other in­di­ca­tors of stu­dent per­for­mance.”

When asked in late May what the fac­ulty was do­ing to pre­pare for next year’s test, To­back says, “At this point in the year, I am quite sure that the ab­so­lute last thing that the fac­ulty wants is to learn more about the next cy­cle of PARCC test­ing. Over the sum­mer, and once the next school year starts, we will look at our ex­pe­ri­ence this year and iden­tify train­ing needs for the next round of PARCC test­ing.”

Fletcher, who as an ed­u­ca­tor for 30 years has wit­nessed two test­ing changes, says ev­ery time there is a re­form ef­fort, it’s “not go­ing to be a panacea.”

“Schools are com­plex so­cial or­ga­ni­za­tions and they need to be treated as such,” he says. “Any so­cial or­ga­ni­za­tion evolves; evo­lu­tion of schools is in­evitable. But just change for change’s sake isn’t the best way to go about it.”

NO MORE PA­PER The new tests are con­ducted on com­put­ers, which wor­ries some par­ents.

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