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.
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.