This spring, 36 states and the District of Columbia are putting the newest standardized tests to the test.
Since nearly the entire nation adopted a newer set of curriculum frameworks -- what are known as the Common Core State Standards -- the race has been to develop a new assessment that is aligned with the standards and could be used across multiple states. This would then replace individual state standardized exams; in the case of this commonwealth, the nearly 20-year-old Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, better known as MCAS.
There are two education consortia leading this new frontier of public K-12 standardized test development, and selected groups of students this spring have begun to test drive the groups’ respective sets of 21st-century exams.
Twenty-two states are presently conducting field tests as members of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. The District of Columbia and 14 other states, including Massachusetts, have begun piloting exams through the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, also known as PARCC.
So what does the latter acronym mean for students and schools? Monday from 3 to 5 p.m., Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield will, in its cafeteria, host one of the state’s 10 regional PARCC community meetings designed to inform parents, educators, and the community at large about what’s coming down the student assessment pipeline.
According to the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, about 81,000 students, or about 8 percent, of the state’s total public school enrollment, will take a PARCC field test in English language arts or mathematics.
Roughly two-thirds of the state’s grade schools will be piloting the PARCC exams, either on paper or online, between now and the end of the school year. A total of 28 schools in the Berkshires will participate, with 10 schools doing a paper field test and the other 18 conducting online exams. About two or three classes per school will pilot PARCC this spring.
Administrators and educators in both the k-12 and higher education sectors have been part of the PARCC discussion for the past few years.
Cynthia F. Brown is the vice president of academic affairs at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, which is home to the Berkshire Compact for Education, Berkshire Readiness Center and other county-wide initiatives working to meet and monitor the educational needs for the county.
"It’s a big thing when you make a change like this," said Brown. "People have a lot of questions about whether [PARCC] is the right assessment" to replace MCAS.
She described the MCAS as a set of exams designed to assess a student’s readiness to graduate from grade 12.
The PARCC explorations, said Brown, are an opportunity to work across states and schools to "get better information about readiness of high school graduates to be successful in English and math."
"Part of the pilot is to see if this is going to be good enough, is this a test that’s reliable, is it valuable, and will it give us the data we need to replace MCAS," she said.
The MCAS was developed as a key component of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, and though it’s since given schools, the state and parents a cache of student data from year to year, the assessment itself hasn’t changed much.
Last week, several media outlets published an editorial composed by Mitchell Chester, Massachusetts commissioner of elementary and secondary education, and national chair of the PARCC Governing Board, and Richard Freeland the state commissioner of higher education, and co-chair of the PARCC Advisory Committee on College Readiness:
"Nearly 31 percent of Massachusetts’s public high school graduates who enroll at one of the state’s public colleges or universities -- including 65 percent of all community college students -- place into one or more noncredit-bearing, remedial courses. Achievement gaps between students of color and white students are higher than the national average, as are the gaps between the college enrollment rates of students of color and white students. In a state where 72 percent of the jobs will require college degrees or training by 2020, the fact that so many students are deemed unprepared for college should set off alarms."
"It is time to update our test," said Chester in a video statement recorded for the PARCC webpage of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
But the manner in which the state is going about this has raised more than a few questions.
"It’s controversial," said Peter Dillon, superintendent for Berkshire Hills Regional School District. "We want teachers and students to understand the context of the exams."
He and other administrators hope that questions and concerns will be received with clear answers from the state during this evening’s PARCC community meeting at Berkshire Community College.
The quality of the test content has been argued. Other schools and watchdogs have criticized the facts that the goal of having solely computer-based exams may prove inequitable due to students’ skill levels and also the costs to schools associated with building bandwidth capacity and training staff to administer the exams.
Right now, the PARCC field tests are considered "low stakes," meaning that though schools hope students will take them seriously and do well, the results won’t be counted towards a grade or the state’s evaluation of a school’s performance.
But according to a PARCC timeline document, full operational administration of PARCC assessments across the consortium are scheduled for the 2014-15 school year, and achievement and college- and career-ready performance levels are on track to be benchmarked by summer 2015. It’s a fast track compared to MCAS, which was developed and piloted over the course of several years before passing the exams became a high school graduation requirement in 2003.
Several Berkshire County superintendents noted that though low stakes, the PARCC field tests still require extra time and planning on each district’s behalf, during the same period that the high stakes MCAS exams are being administered.
Justin Kratz, principal of the Charles H. McCann Technical School in North Adams, and his staff administered an online PARCC field test in English language arts to a group of 54 ninth graders last Wednesday in the school’s library. The room was silent, less the sound of clicking keys and the occasional cough or head scratching.
"This is such a huge transition from MCAS," said Kratz. Questions are posed through the use of interactive content and formulas. Highlighting and scratch work are done through the software’s toolbars. From an administrative standpoint, a master screen shows in real-time where every student taking the exam is in terms of completion and success.
"I thought it would take [the students] a while to get use to it, but after one tutorial session, they were breezing through. They took to PARCC without skipping a beat."
If you go ...
What: PARCC Community Meeting, sponsored by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Berkshire Readiness Center.
When: Tonight (Monday) from 3 to 5 p.m.
Where: Cafeteria at Berkshire Community College, 1350 West St., Pittsfield.
Details: This free, public forum will include an overview by state education officials of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), and an opportunity for community members to ask questions about the current PARCC field tests and future plans regarding development and implementation and the work of the consortium.
Berkshire County schools scheduled to participate in the Spring 2014 PARCC field tests:
Gabriel Abbott Memorial (Florida)
Brayton Elementary (North Adams)
BART Charter Public
Plunkett Elementary (Adams-Cheshire)
Monument Mountain Regional High (Berkshire Hills)
Nessacus Regional Middle (Central Berkshire)
Farmington River Elementary
Undermountain Elementary (Southern Berkshire)
Mount Everett Regional High (Southern Berkshire)
Lenox Memorial Middle/High
Greylock Elementary (North Adams)
Egremont Elementary (Pittsfield)
Morningside Community (Pittsfield)
Crosby Elementary (Pittsfield)
Stearns Elementary (Pittsfield)
Williams Elementary (Pittsfield)
Silvio O. Conte Community (Pittsfield)
John T. Reid Middle (Pittsfield)
Theodore Herberg Middle (Pittsfield)
Muddy Brook Elementary (Berkshire Hills)
Monument Valley Middle (Berkshire Hills)
Craneville Elementary (Central Berkshire)
Wahconah Regional High (Central Berkshire)
Charles H. McCann Technical (Northern Berkshire Regional Vocational Technical)