Confusion surrounds PARCC testing

Parents, teachers, school districts try to understand new state-mandated school tests

UNION COUNTY — The start of the 2014-2015 school year has put the spotlight on Common Core State Standards because New Jersey students will begin a new testing system this school year which is aligned with the more rigorous Common Core standards.
Many school districts, parents and educators admit there is much confusion surrounding the testing system which many people are simply calling “the PARCC tests.”

Questions have surfaced about every facet of this new program, including why the new testing was needed in the first place, the impact to school districts, the cost to taxpayers and whether parents can have their child “opted out” from these tests.

The Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, is a federally-funded, multi-state consortium developing the tests in conjunction with large commercial testing companies.

According to PARCC’s website, the tests are a common set of computer-based assessments in English language arts and literacy, and math designed for kindergarteners through 12th graders.

The tests have been developed, according to PARCC, to better measure students’ critical-thinking and problem solving skills and their ability to communicate clearly. The PARCC assessments will replace state tests currently in use which meet the requirements of federal laws.

PARCC is a federally-funded, multi-state consortium developing the tests in conjunction with large commercial testing companies. Initially, the consortium had 25 members, but presently New Jersey is one of only 12 states and the District of Columbia that have remained in PARCC and one of only nine states that will give the test in 2015.

One of the immediate areas impacted by these testing changes is in the high schools. Current high school seniors will be the last class required to pass the High School Proficiency Assessment, or HSPA, in order to receive a diploma, a requirement that has been in place since 2003.

Starting this year, freshmen, sophomores and juniors face new tests as part of the PARCC exams. Each year they will face exams in language arts and mathematics. Each exam has two parts — a performance section given in March and an end-of-course exam in April or May.

While it is true the NJDOE initially proposed suspending the current high school graduation test requirement for the class of 2016 during the state’s transition to PARCC, there have been no specific regulations implementing this particular policy or the use of PARCC scores for grades, course credit or student transcripts.

According to the New Jersey Education Law Center, passing the PARCC tests will “most likely not be a N.J. requirement for at least several years.”

For many school districts, adding the PARCC computer-based tests to the high school curriculum could have many significant impacts that are only beginning to come to light, according to the New Jersey Education Law Center.

The New Jersey Education Law Center and unions representing teachers continue to maintain long-term implications of such testing will be far reaching.

For example, a report from the Carnegie Commission projected that by putting in place PARCC high school exit testing “could double the national dropout rate and cause graduation rates to plummet.”

Similarly, a policy brief from the New America Foundation argued against state exit exams suggesting “states run the risk of undermining efforts to increase rigor, build stronger curricula and authentically evaluate student’s postsecondary readiness by using tests like PARCC as graduation requirements.”

New Jersey Education President Wendell Steinhauer called the NJDOE’s PARCC assessment testing “a poorly-timed decision that has caused great confusion among students and educators.”

Recently at a Union Candidates Night Forum the topic of PARCC testing was raised. School Board member Vito Nufrio was recently reelected to the board for a second three-year term, and during the debate he admitted the school district was still wading through the entire issue.

He reportedly also said the NJDOE was still “looking into” the ramifications of PARCC testing in general, and while that may be true, it does not change the fact that the state says it will be moving ahead with this testing and expects school districts to prepare by updating their technology and computers.

There is little doubt the majority of concerns surrounding PARCC testing go beyond the associated costs to school districts and taxpayers. Among these concerns are possible consequences involving teacher evaluations, school performance rankings and the educational impact of longer, more difficult tests on curriculum, instruction and student experience in school.

In the spring, when Stan Karp, Director of Education Law Center’s Secondary Reform Project, testified before the New Jersey Assembly Education Committee about delaying use of PARCC testing for accountability purposes, he did not mince words.

“Raising standards without providing, or even identifying, the resources needed to deliver them sets schools and students up for frustration and failure instead of success,” he said.

So far no one has been able to conclusively address the concerns that have surfaced, and this in turn has led to much confusion among parents and educators. One particular area where many parents feel left in the dark is how PARCC tests vary from the tests that preceded it.

For example, the test will ask students to demonstrate critical thinking and problem solving skills in an in-depth manner by not only answering questions, but showing their work and explaining the reasoning behind that answer.

In math, for instance, a student will have to explain mathematical reasoning, not just get the answer correct.
In English language arts and literacy, a student will be required to read complex passages and identify evidence that can be used to make a persuasive argument.

In addition, actually taking the PARCC test will be completely different from testing of the past, since it will be built on a computer system that is easy for students to learn and use, according to the consortium.

Schools will be able to use a range of devices from desktop computers to laptops and tablets, the same technology now being used in many districts throughout the school year.

But the impact to school districts and the overuse of standardized testing is not the only concern. Some districts lack adequate supplies of the necessary technology to administer the test.

For example, according to a February 13, 2014, article in The Princeton Sun, while many New Jersey school districts have not figured out what the final cost will be, in Princeton, which has 3,500 registered students, the school district has already spent $255,000 on 500 additional computers and other technology upgrades for testing under PARCC mandates.

Additionally, according to Princeton School Business Administrator Stephanie Kennedy, the district expected to see a $200,000 annual recurring cost related to labor and services with the PARCC testing.

In response, the Christie administration has repeatedly said that the technology purchases are not meant to be exclusive to the testing and should be considered part of a school district’s broader instructional needs.

“Through the transition to new PARCC assessments in 2014-2015, New Jersey schools will be able to administer high-quality assessments that truly measure critical thinking skills and to provide timely, meaningful data to educators about student performance,” said Michael Yaple, the governor’s public information director. “As we continue to raise the bar for what students need to know to be ready for the 21st century, these new assessments will pay a critical role in helping us get there.”

Additionally, as of the fall, according to New Jersey Spotlight, only half of New Jersey’s school districts said they had the software, bandwidth or online support they needed to fulfill testing requirements.

The Education Super-Highway, a non-profit organization dedicated to the principle that fast, reliable internet access is critical for children’s success in the 21st century, estimated that 80 percent of schools nationwide do not have an adequate internet infrastructure for current needs, let alone future needs. The typical K-12 public school district, they said, has the same internet access as the typical home – with a hundred times as many users, the group said.

There is little doubt that school districts in Union County will have to increase their capacity, or bandwidth, to handle more simultaneous computer users logging onto the internet. Bandwidth is the amount of digital data that is being or can be transferred at any given time over a network, calculated in bits per second.

However, while PARCC testing can be administered right through the PARCC internet site for schools with the recommended bandwidth, the testing assessments can also be downloaded locally onto the district or school server and then uploaded for scoring after completion.

One thing that will be necessary, officials said, is input from information technology personnel in order to ensure the right planning and decision making is made for the right computer and internet equipment. Although some have estimated that two students will be able to share a computer, PARCC officials also pointed out that school districts will have 20 days to administer PARCC testing so groups of students can be rotated through available computers in the district.

Another problem that has to be considered is that school districts that do not regularly employ information technology personnel will need someone in this field of expertise on site because “problems can and will occur,” according to the New Jersey School Boards Association.

“Districts that do not regularly employ IT staff may need to consider using consultants, shared-services agreements or the educational service commissions that supply technology support services,” said the NJSBA in a recent statement.

The NJSBA also offers help with this expense, pointing out that school districts may apply to the Grant Program for School Facilities Projects in Regular Operating Districts, or ROD grants, to help defray the cost associated with changes required to upgrade internet access to the recommended levels.

According to information provided by the PARCC consortium, this testing will expand student access and provide fair and equal opportunities for students to show what they know and, more importantly, what they are able to do. This, they added, will be especially helpful to students with learning disabilities or, for that matter, any disability, by providing certain accessibility features.
These accessibility features include a range of tools, supports and preferences that will be available to any student at his or her discretion during testing.

Of importance is that these tools are typical of features already used by students on their computers, both in the classroom and at home.

Some examples of the tools that students will be able to use include using a highlighter function, which helps students recall information later; having test directions read aloud and repeated as needed; enlarging text on the screen to see words, pictures and details more clearly; using a spell checker; pop-up glossary for definitions; writing tools such as copy, cut, paste and bold; raising and lowering volume of headphones; and providing scrap paper so students can plan and organize their answers.

Also allowed during PARCC testing will be considerations for students that have never been made before. Included will be testing in small groups, frequent supervised breaks, testing at different times of the day, testing in separate or alternate locations, and using adaptive and specialized equipment or furniture.

Additionally, although PARCC advocates noted these tests are quite accessible, they said students with disabilities, English learners and English learners with disabilities may need further accommodations to demonstrate their knowledge and skills.

These accommodations could change either the way a student answers questions, the manner in which the assessment is given, or even when the assessment testing is given. This, they said, will increase the probability that a student with disabilities of any kind will receive an accurate score based on their knowledge and skills.

Additional information about PARCC testing and students with disabilities can be found at www.parcconline.org.
Next Week: How do Union County school districts feel about PARCC testing, the cost to districts and all about parents’ right to “opt out” their child from this testing.