The New PARCC Tests: Are We Ready?

The Common Core program calls for new standardized
tests. As New Jersey schools prepare for high-tech testing,
some educators are asking: Why the rush?

Next March 2, public education will change. That’s when New Jersey, along with eight other states plus the District of Columbia, is due to flip the switch on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers exams—a new set of standardized tests that will replace the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJ ASK) for third- through eighth-graders and the 11th-grade High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) tests for math and English-language arts that have been in place for more than a decade.

For advocates of education reform, that day can’t come soon enough. In the works since 2010, the PARCC assessments are designed to be the next generation in standardized testing: aligned to the new Common Core standards adopted by 46 states plus the District of Columbia, conducted via computer and tablet, and shared across multiple states to save money and make it easier to compare scores. And because computerized tests can be scored more quickly, say PARCC officials, teachers will receive speedier feedback on how their students are faring.

Much like the Common Core itself, the new tests have become a flash point in the growing conflict between education reformers who are seeking what they call increased accountability on the part of schools, and testing critics who charge, among other things, that the new tests waste time and money. This past spring, PARCC conducted field tests—a dry run set up by PARCC and states to see how students and teachers would handle the new testing regimen. Almost the minute New Jersey students powered up their PARCC field-test screens, the discussion board lit up with teachers and school officials decrying the new tests as glitch-ridden and confusing, and for making students feel “miserable” and “helpless.”

Aside from PARCC’s role in the testing wars, though, discussions with school officials, teachers and parents alike reveal a shared concern: Even those who welcome a revamped testing scheme question whether the rollout of the new tests is too much, too soon.

“Overall, we feel that things went well, in that the problems that we encountered were a learning experience, and we were able to remedy both what we needed to do and how,” says Joanne Decker, director of technology for Bloomfield’s public schools.

Yet Bloomfield officials don’t mince words about the job ahead. “I think we’re about to hit an incredible learning curve,” says Decker’s colleague, Jaynellen Behre-Jenkins, the town’s assistant superintendent in charge of curriculum and instruction. “No matter how prepared we think we are now, the learning curve in the next 365 days is going to be tremendous.”

PARCC—along with Smarter Balanced, another multistate testing consortium set to kick off in some states—can trace its origins to the No Child Left Behind Act, the hallmark legislation of the George W. Bush presidency that was intended to insure that all U.S. schoolchildren were proficient in math and reading at their grade level by 2014. Originally, the plan was to penalize any schools that didn’t meet an escalating series of standards by forcing them to shape up or be shut down.

When it became clear that this would lead to massive school closings, President Barack Obama moved the goalposts. Under his Race to the Top program, which in 2009 effectively replaced No Child Left Behind, states are rewarded with extra federal money for instituting such reforms as tying teacher evaluation to test scores. In addition, the federal education department issued $350 million in grants to fund two multistate testing consortiums, each of which was charged with developing a new set of exams for the 21st century.

In the case of PARCC, the contract went to Achieve, a prominent education think tank founded in 1996 by a group of U.S. governors and business leaders. (The group’s chair is former Intel CEO Craig Barrett.) In turn, Achieve contracted with Pearson, the British educational giant that has become increasingly prominent in the American testing industry, to write and conduct a series of tests targeted for launch in spring 2015.

New Jersey’s first taste of PARCC came last spring, with the field tests, when about 10 percent of the state’s students were confronted with sample questions to see how the tests, four years in the making, performed in real-world conditions.

“Initial feedback indicates that the practice run was an overall positive experience,” said state chief performance officer Bari Anhalt Erlichson in a memo following the tests. The main takeaways, she said, were that schools could better prepare themselves for the tests, particularly by downloading them ahead of time to avoid overloading their Internet bandwidth (known as proctor caching), as well as boning up on how to use such functions as PARCC’s Equation Editor, which is designed to allow students to enter mathematical symbols in a way that mimics paper-and-pencil equation writing.

Most teachers and administrators who conducted the field tests agree that they went off with few hitches. “Technically, for us, things went very well, but we also did a lot of preparation,” says Teresa Rehman, supervisor of technology for the Roxbury public schools. Intensive teacher training will be key, she says. “It was overwhelming for teachers who are not comfortable with technology”—a problem when teachers are expected to be the first line of tech support.

Educators reported that students overwhelmingly liked taking the tests on electronic devices. “They took to the iPad like it was natural,” says Decker, noting that when one middle school student ran into problems with a pop-up blocker, two seventh-graders stepped up to show their classmate how to disable it.

“Most of the students’ reactions were, ‘I like taking it this way,’” agrees Rehman, noting that most of her school’s students worked through the exams very quickly. However, she says, many ran into trouble when they moved from keyboard-friendly tasks such as multiple-choice and drag-and-drop questions, to those they were accustomed to doing on paper, such as essays and math equations.

To remedy this, Rehman hopes next year to have students do practice tests on the same devices they’ll be taking the actual tests on, something that wasn’t possible for the field tests.

Julie Shutz, who is in her 17th year of teaching fifth grade in Ocean County, says her students overwhelmingly preferred computerized tests to the old fill-in-the-circles format. “Overall,” she says, “they loved the tests on the computer, probably more than I did.” She also found PARCC easier to administer, because instructions can be given right on the computer. Yet enthusiasm varied from student to student. “I have kids with atrocious handwriting,” says Shutz, “who loved the fact that they could do this test online and type their essays. I had gifted children who were frustrated that their essay was frozen and dumped, and they had to start over again.”

Screens freezing was only one of several common complaints about the PARCC field tests at schools across the state. A poll by the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association in April found that 88.4 percent of school administrators in the state expressed “anxiety” about the forthcoming PARCC tests, citing as major issues computers that either didn’t work or logged students out without warning, and confusing instructions.

Shutz blames the freezing screens on inadequate computers and poorly designed software. “Half the problems were with the test, and half were with our technology,” she says.

David Hespe, the acting commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Education (DOE), claimed in April that 70 percent of schools already had the technology in place to conduct the PARCC tests. (A DOE spokesperson says that this figure was up to 80 percent by the end of the school year.) Rehman says the Roxbury schools already had budgeted $1.5 million for wireless access and other technology upgrades—something that would likely have been done eventually without PARCC, but became more urgent once the test dates were looming.

Indeed, the state and districts stress that widespread computer upgrades are needed regardless, so it’s not fair to blame PARCC for the added tech costs.

“People tend to ask that question in a vacuum, as if the technology is being used only for assessments,” says DOE spokesman Mike Yaple. “It’s important to remember that the same technology that is used to provide student learning can also be used for assessing that student learning.”

As for freezing screens and other glitches, Yaple says proctor caching and other lessons learned from the field tests should help minimize such problems. Besides, he says, “every year, New Jersey sees dozens of instances of problems with the old-fashioned paper-and-pencil tests,” including proctor errors or more serious breaches such as cheating. The state works with districts to address these issues and will continue to do so with PARCC.

Still, some districts wonder how they’ll pay for new technology and infrastructure upgrades—such as wiring and bandwidth—at older schools. Governor Chris Christie’s 2014-2015 budget added $10 per student in “PARCC readiness technology aid,” a figure seen as falling far short of what districts need. Stan Karp, director of the Secondary Reform Project at the Education Law Center in Newark, suggests the allocation was a token gesture meant, in part, to deter districts from filing formal objections that PARCC is an unfunded mandate. “The $10 makes it a grossly underfunded mandate instead of a totally unfunded one,” Karp says.

“It’s kind of unfortunate, but our schools aren’t equipped for it,” says Mo’Neke Ragsdale, a Camden parent activist. Camden schools are still awaiting smart boards because the wiring in city schools won’t support it, she says; on top of this, layoffs of 241 school employees in May by superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard decimated the district’s IT department, she says. “With the drastic cuts that they’re doing, we’re so far back from the other school districts, it’s just ridiculous.”

Technology shortfalls are expected to worsen as resources are stretched to the limit this school year, when schools will have to conduct tests on 10 times as many students within the 20-day testing window.
Roxbury’s Rehman says that she assigned a technician to be on site throughout the PARCC field tests, a luxury that won’t be possible once full testing begins. “I have seven buildings,” she says. “If all seven are testing next year at the same time, I only have six technicians—and I’m not the only school that’s running into that.”

Schools will also have to decide whether to devote all available computers and tablets to the tests. If they go in that direction, all students will be able to take the tests at the same time, but teachers will be without any computers to use on regular classroom work. If instead the tests are staggered, the exam period could drag on for the entire testing window.

“At some schools, you would have to use the full 20 days of testing, both morning testing and afternoon testing, in order to get all the students through,” says Rehman. Not only would that mean that each small slice of students being tested would end up missing regular class time—something that Roxbury High School students complained about during the field tests—but it also raises potential questions of fairness: “Is it equitable for one student to take it in the morning and one to take it in the afternoon?”

“Just getting everybody in my building into the computer lab twice a year in March and May to sit and take X number of days of testing seems logistically impossible,” says Shutz. Moreover, she says, students who missed a day of NJ ASK could jump in at the point the rest of the class had reached and go back to complete missed sections at the end of the testing period; under PARCC, they have to start at the beginning and play catch up. “These poor kids came in after being sick and taking day one in the morning, and then being subjected to day two in the afternoon.”

The time crunch worsens when teachers try to schedule their own class-by-class tests to determine how kids are performing as the school year progresses, something unlikely to change under PARCC. “Those local assessments are like the boots on the ground for us, where we use that kind of data to inform our instruction,” says Behre-Jenkins. “But it’s an extra juggle now to try to get those things in without making the kids feel like they’re constantly being assessed.”

Shutz likewise worries that adding two PARCC tests each year to the three tests her district conducts for its own student evaluations will leave little time for regular schoolwork. “I gave up so much time this year just for our [assessment] testing, for September, January, April, for benchmarks,” and for setting the new “student growth objectives” required by the state for teacher evaluation, she says. “What’s the first thing that goes? Science and social studies”—which, she says, are the subjects preferred by kids who aren’t strong in math or reading. “‘What, the teacher canceled it again? Why?’ Because we have to test, we have to test, we have to test.”

Under Christie and his education team, New Jersey has been one of the staunchest PARCC stalwarts. Numerous states have increasingly wavered about going ahead with the new tests. Georgia, Alabama, Utah, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania have all jumped ship since PARCC’s inception; other states, including New York, have hinted that they’ll put off implementation until technology and other issues are worked out.

In Georgia, says Melissa Fincher, testing director for that state’s DOE, the decision to decline PARCC was simply based on cost. “PARCC was going to be more than double what our current state assessment budget is,” she says. And for that price, PARCC would test just English-language arts and math. Georgia’s own tests cover social studies and science as well.

A large number of New Jersey educators say their PARCC worries could be eased by one thing: more time. “A slower rollout would be very, very welcome,” says Bloomfield superintendent Sal Goncalves.

That sentiment helped drive a bill in the state Legislature that would have left the PARCC tests in place, delaying some of their impact. The bill, sponsored by state Assemblywoman Mila M. Jasey (D-South Orange) and pushed by teachers’ unions and many parents, would have prohibited the state from using PARCC results to evaluate teachers, while guaranteeing districts the right to use alternative pencil-and-paper tests for two years—an option that PARCC offers all states, but New Jersey has yet to commit to accepting. (Hespe has said that there’s a “contingency” for paper alternative tests, but that “our expectation remains that every student will be taking it through a computer device.”) The bill also would have created a state task force to estimate the total cost of implementing Common Core standards and associated tests.

The Assembly passed the bill by a large margin. Passage in the state Senate was expected until late June when Senate president Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford) abruptly pulled it before a planned vote, reportedly to seek compromise language that would satisfy Christie. On July 14, the governor issued an executive order appointing his own task force to evaluate state testing, and announced that test results would be given slightly less weight in evaluating teachers—effectively forestalling any broader changes.

Even as originally written, Jasey’s bill would have done little to ease concerns about the speed of the rollout or kids’ ability to catch up with the new Common Core curriculum, which Shutz says is shifting too fast for many students to handle. For example, she says, the prior state math curriculum required fifth-graders to know perimeter and area. Now, fourth-graders are expected to know that and fifth-graders will be expected to know volume.

“We just need time to assess: Is the test truly aligned with the [Common Core] curriculum standards? Have the kids had enough time to adjust to these standards? Are we testing them before we’ve taught them?” says Shutz. “I tell my kids with the new math series, ‘It stinks to be you, because your language has changed, your standards of curriculum have changed, and you’re 10.’”

Also uncertain going into the school year: How districts will handle New Jersey families that opt out of the tests. (New Jersey’s opt-out movement, while lagging behind New York’s, made rapid strides in the weeks following the PARCC field tests, with one New Jersey opt-out Facebook page jumping from 200 to 1,000 members, according to Karp.) Currently, in many districts, families have to either keep kids home, or have them come to school, open their books, then do nothing for the duration of the test—a practice known in education circles as “sit and stare.”

“There are so many unknowns,” says Shutz. “I just feel, as a teacher, take your time, figure it out and get it right before you make it count.”

Neil deMause writes about education issues for the Village Voice, Al Jazeera America, and Extra! His book The Brooklyn Wars, a look at the transformation of that borough, will be published in April 2015.

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