PITTSFIELD -- Pittsfield schools will begin implementing the PARCC student testing system next year, the first step toward eventually phasing out the use of the MCAS system.
The School Committee on Wednesday unanimously approved the shift, but not before committee members raised a number of questions about the technology and teacher support required -- much of which the city apparently will have to fund.
Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless recommended a switch to the new PARCC, (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) testing system and away from the current MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) of standardized student testing.
The complete rollout of the new system is likely to take a few years, he said, but most Pittsfield students would become involved next year.
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has asked school districts to consider using the PARCC system for the next year so the state can fully assess it as a replacement for the 17-year-old MCAS system. McCandless said that, after meetings with state education officials, he fully expects the PARCC system will be implemented statewide in the fall of 2015. Even if it is not selected, he said he expects the MCAS tests would change to become like the PARCC tests.
PARCC tests are designed to be taken online, rather than on paper, and to coordinate with the Common Core curriculum standards, which Pittsfield implemented in 2011.
Switching to the PARCC tests in the first wave of school districts, McCandless said, will be a chance "for Pittsfield schools to get out front on this." As an incentive, he said, the state has decided it won't count the first year's student test scores in light of the state's education progress goals for individual schools or districts, giving the city time to adjust to the new format.
In addition, McCandless said, some of the student testing would still be done with the MCAS format next year, and not all Pittsfield students would initially be involved in the PARCC rollout.
About 500 students in Pittsfield schools took part in a field test of the PARCC online tests over the past year, he said, and there were no significant problems. Questions of whether students might have problems dealing with online testing proved hollow, he said, and primarily "an adult perception."
Committee members questioned whether city schools were prepared for the PARCC test in terms of teacher training, technology and technical support. They also reiterated a compliant voiced earlier by McCandless that the number of laptops or tablets required, along with related technical support and Internet infrastructure amounts to an unfunded mandate from the state.
McCandless originally sought $200,000 for those PARCC-related expenses in the fiscal 2015 budget, but that figure ultimately was reduced, including elimination of $125,000 originally proposed for new computer devices.
"The technology and support is just not there," said committee member Pamela Farron.
She and committee member Cynthia Taylor questioned whether waiting for another year might not be better for the students and teachers and allow more time to address the technology needs.
Chairwoman Katherine Yon, Anthony Riello and Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi, an ex-officio board member, spoke in favor of making the change to give city schools a headstart at what seems the future of standardized testing in Massachusetts -- particularly the online feature.
In light of the concerns voiced, Bianchi asked McCandless whether delaying a vote while seeking more answers from the state about PARCC might be advisable.
"I don't expect to get more answers from the state," McCandless said, adding that after attending information sessions with state officials, he understands the mood among state officials is "to make things happen" concerning the testing format.
He also told committee members that he expects the PARCC system to be rolled out over about five years, and that Pittsfield will have time to invest in the required technology and become familiar with the tests.
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