whitespace

031314i PARCC bThis spring, students in 37 Cambridge public school classrooms will take not one but two standardized tests.

In addition to the annual Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test given to all students from third through eighth grade and to 10th-graders, select students will be test-driving a set of English language arts and math tests from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers that may replace MCAS.

The results of the PARCC tests this year will not be counted. In fact, no one in the district – not students, parents, teachers or administrators – will see the results. Twelve Cambridge schools were among the 15 percent of Massachusetts schools including 82,000 third- through 11th-graders chosen randomly by PARCC to take the sample tests, give feedback to their developers and help the state decide whether it will replace MCAS in 2016-17 (with the exception of MCAS science tests, which Massachusetts will continue to use either way).

Two representatives of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education visited Cambridge on March 6 to introduce PARCC to more than 70 people, mostly parents joined by school department staff and elected officials including state Rep. Marjorie Decker, School Committee members Fran Cronin, Kathleen Kelly and Patty Nolan, and assistant superintendents Jessica Huizenga and Maryann MacDonald and Assistant Director of Educational Technology Gina Roughton. The state officials, Bob Bickerton and Maureen LaCroix, fielded dozens of sometimes heated questions, with three issues dominating:

bullet-gray-smallthe burden on the district and its students of taking two standardized tests in one season.

bullet-gray-smallthe eventual requirement that the PARCC will be taken on computers.

bullet-gray-smalluncertainty about the value of high-stakes standardized testing.

What is PARCC?

PARCC is one of two multi-state consortia awarded federal grant money to develop an assessment tool for the new common core, the set of curriculum standards for each grade level formulated and promoted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and National Governors Association. Embraced by the U.S. Department of Education, its development was funded in part through federal Race to the Top money and signed onto by all but a few states. Massachusetts is part of the PARCC consortium and it is chaired by the state’s education commissioner, Mitchell Chester, a longtime advocate of the Common Core.

The consortium is developing tests through Pearson, the largest education company and book publisher in the world and the creator and implementer of several other standardized tests. Whether PARCC replaces the MCAS will be decided by the state’s Board of Higher Education in the fall of 2015.

MCAS is widely recognized as possibly the best U.S. standardized K-12 test, but the state sees important advantages in the new test, said Bickerton, who also sits on the national committee for PARCC:

bullet-gray-smallit is aligned with new common core standards and should better line up with what is taught in the classroom.

bullet-gray-smallthe computerized results will be ready much faster.

bullet-gray-smallthe tests are marketed as a giving added insight to teachers about the levels and abilities of individual students.

bullet-gray-smallit should cost less than MCAS.

bullet-gray-smallstudents who meet a certain performance level will be declared “college ready” and, in a “partnership with state higher education schools” not need remedial coursework in college, as has been the case for many students graduating high school by passing the 10th-gradeMCAS. Literature for new test claims it, unlike MCAS, “assesses whether students are on track for college and career” as determined by a board of educators and employers.

Also unlike MCAS, the new test will be timed, although Bickerton said there will be more than enough time for students to finish (“after a certain point, research shows, more time doesn’t help,” he said). There will still be accommodations for students with special needs with the “unfortunate” exception that the state was unable to get PARCC to allow individualized “graphic organizers.”

Field-testing PARCC – What’s in it for Cambridge?

Adding up to five tests to the spring is meeting with resistance. “I look forward to a bigger conversation in Cambridge about high-stakes testing,” said Ann Barnes, a parent of a fifth-grader at Graham & Parks, “but the issue right now is the field-testing burden on top of MCAS with nothing, no data, to show for it.” Asking why Cambridge kids have to take these tests and provide free research for a company with a multimillion-dollar contract, Barnes has been helping to organize a small but growing group of parents pushing back against the testing.

Schools taking the test were identified by PARCC, but individual classes will be determined with the district and school principals. Although the test ultimately will be taken on computers, schools that cannot accommodate the technical requirements (Amigos, Graham & Parks and the Rindge Avenue Upper School this year) will be able to take it on paper at least through 2015-16. The state says it will make sample tests available.

Unlike MCAS, which is given once a year sometime between March 17-31, the new test is given twice a year: a “performance-based assessment” sometime between March 24 and April 11 and an “end-of-the-year assessment” between May 5 and June 6. Eighth-graders at the Cambridge Street Upper School and seventh-graders at Vassal Lane Upper School will take math PARCCs in both periods this spring and Putnam Avenue Upper School seventh-graders will take the English tests – all in addition to the MCAS tests.

In addition, most if not all schools have practice MCAS tests in preparation for the actual test, and many lower-grade parents report seeing increasing use of practice tests unrelated to classroom curriculum among their children’s homework.  For students taking the PARCC, there will be two practice sessions, and parents have reported students adding typing classes to prepare.

“I’m really wondering where the time is coming from,” Graham & Parks parent Odette Binder said to Bickerton. “What are we losing in the classroom?”

Barnes agreed: “If we can’t find time for world languages and sufficient recess, why do we have time for kids to pilot this PARCC field test?”

The state created a provision for districts to allow students taking the new tests to not take the MCAS this year. “Interestingly,” Bickerton said, “the majority of districts felt that getting the data was too important to the parents” to take that option.

031314i-PARCC-quoteIn Cambridge, though, the emphasis was on the district getting the data.“Particularly since we are a Level 3 district, we need that data,” Superintendent Jeffrey Young said, meaning that at least one district school is among the lowest-performing 20 percent of schools statewide. MCAS data increasingly drives student, school and teacher assessments, and it is tied to the receipt of some state and federal funding.

Asked if he would consider requesting that Cambridge withdraw from field tests this year, Young demurred. With a lack of enthusiasm, he said, “It is what it is. It’s a field test. We’ll work with what we have.”

In terms of letting individual families opt out, the PARCC-created Frequently Asked Questions on the state’s website says schools should schedule make-up sessions for students absent on test days.

The district is sending mixed messages. Some families report that principals have said children who stay home during the tests will be punished, but in an open letter posted by Huizenga, she wrote that “Parents may choose to keep their children home on these field test days, should they prefer.” Those students will get an “unexcused absence,” which in practice means it will go on the students’ attendance record but have no other implications, Huizenga confirmed in an email. Huizenga said she is still waiting for a response from the state on plans to enforce make-up tests.

Outside Cambridge

Some other communities are taking a stronger position. Northampton officials are asking to skip the field test through a letter from the interim superintendent unanimously approved by its school committee to the state commissioner of education, according to a report in the Valley Gazette. The letter stressed the high time commitment and technological demands, scheduling the “large number of students with special educational needs” and juggling the tests with the needs of two new principals and new curricula.

The Norfolk School Committee voted in January to let parents opt out of the test but were told in a letter from the state they were not allowed. A state law requiring “comprehensive diagnostic assessment of individual students” was cited, but the committee, chaired by state Rep. Shawn Dooley, replied in a Feb. 11 letter that a field test providing no feedback cannot qualify under this law. Worcester school officials voted March 7 to allow parents to opt out of the tests.

Faculty, parents and staff in Tennessee, New York, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, to name a few, have protested against serving as “unpaid research subjects” to the for-profits developing the assessments (EFT and Pearson, which is handling Massachusetts). A nationwide grassroots parents group, Change the Stakes, has written, “Our children are not lab rats. Yet these tests are being done at our expense, with public, taxpayer dollars, so that a private corporation can turn around and sell their test product back to us at a profit.”

“Will Pearson make some money from this? Sure,” Bickerton said. “But the cost to the state per PARCC test is lower than the cost to the state per MCAS test.” The MCAS – created by state staff with no extra money – costs an average $23 per test; economies of scale means the new test will cost an average $15, he said.

These costs do not include school technology upgrades, for which Bickerton and state materials point to two possible sources: a $38 million bond bill under discussion at the State House and an FCC commitment to expand funding for “e-rate,” a federal program aimed at connecting schools and libraries to broadband Internet.

The use of computers for the tests

Bickerton and LaCroix were frank about technology upgrades being one of the goals of using PARCC: pushing communities “who have been reluctant to use computers more in the classroom” to ramp up.

Some sample math and ELA questions used in the new test were shown at the meeting, and they weren’t simply questions transferred to a computer. Using the computer well was an actual part of the test. The questions were interactive, with pull-down menus and tools such as protractors and calculators; supplemental videos; and even options to change font size, background color and frames to allow students to better “focus on and engage in” the questions.

Some in the audience seemed to find this exciting, specifically parents of children with special needs who find computers make some learning more accessible. Others – some of whom are also teachers – worried about the “digital divide” affecting students without ready access to computers at home and about what they saw as an overemphasis on computers, especially among young children.

For many schools and districts, the costs seemed high. “We can’t even plug in a coffee maker and a copy maker at the same time without blowing a fuse. What’s it going to take to get our school ready for this kind of computer use?” Mary-Ann Matyas said of her children’s school, Graham & Parks.

Common core and standardized testing

With many parents expressing concern that testing was taking over more and more of the school day and curriculum, Bickerton countered that only 1.5 percent of the school year, or 2.7 days, is spent on MCAS and said there should be no reason for schools to spend time “teaching to the test.”

“Of course teachers are spending time teaching the kids how to take the tests,” said Erica Pastor, a parent and teacher. There is so much riding on the performance of the children that it becomes a critical part of many teachers’ day, she and others argued.

Official information about the test seems to suggest PARCC is a tool for learning as well as assessment. In a January letter to parents, state commissioner of education Chester promises:

PARCC will offer rich, performance-based tasks that will provide you with a better measure of our children’s ability to write, think critically and apply what they know. PARRC will also provide clearer signals to educators and parents about students’ readiness for the next grade level and, in high school, for college and careers.

One of the key reasons for the development of the test offered by Bickerton is that too many of Massachusetts high school graduates are not ready for college, based on how many need to take remedial courses before getting to for-credit courses.

“But giving me another assessment, setting the bar higher, given the swath of my classroom, how is this helping me?” asked one parent who teaches elementary school in Boston. This is a question being asked increasingly across the country. The notion that scoring a certain level on the tests will guarantee students will be ready to start college has been endorsed by several Massachusetts public colleges, but is untested.

This comes at a time of growing criticism of standardized tests and the common core in general. Articles in The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Education Week have been critical of standards created largely by university professors and business executives, and Cambridge’s own early childhood expert, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, noted that none of the review panel members of the common core were K-3 classroom teachers or early childhood professionals.

Communities in such places as New York State, North Carolina and Chicago have recently protested against high-stakes tests, and just this week the president of the College Board announced significant changes to the SAT, a primary college admissions standardized test, saying it has on the whole been a poor predictor of college performance.

This post was updated March 13, 2014, to correct the school attended by the children of Mary-Ann Matyas.