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Over 60,000 New Jersey Students Take Part in Field Test of Online PARCC Exams

Early reports indicate trials went off without major headaches, although some relatively minor glitches were encountered

More than 62,000 New Jersey elementary and high school students were part of the nation’s first large-scale test of the online PARCC exams, an early trial that officials are calling a success -- despite some glitches.

New Jersey’s participation over the past month was among the largest in the country, topped only by Illinois and Ohio.

And depending on who is talking, the trial went fairly well, with comments still coming in. NJ Spotlight is conducting its own survey, too, for our readers to share their experiences.

The chief spokesman for PARCC -- the acronym for the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers -- said yesterday that the field tests, which involved more than 400,000 students in more than a dozen states, went about as expected, with no major problems but plenty of smaller issues to be addressed.

Taking place in more than 1,000 New Jersey schools, the trial was in the performance-based piece of the PARCC exams for language arts and math, in which students are asked to complete writing assignments or more complex math computations.

PARCC released new versions of the practice exam last week, allowing the public to take the language arts and math tests themselves.

Another trial will take place in May, the so-called end-of-year tests that will focus more on the content required at each grade level. The trials lead up to the full roll-out of the PARCC exams in every school in 2015.

David Connerty-Marin, the communications director for PARCC, said that so far the problems have largely been isolated and centered on technology, such as difficulties with certain computers and network issues.

A call center set up by the private administrator of the test, Pearson Education, received from New Jersey schools more than 2,300 requests for help during the three-week field test.

In New Jersey and other states, Connerty-Marin said there was some confusion about basic test instructions, which caused hundreds of students to prematurely click the button to finish the tests, when they should have been only gone to a new section.

“In those cases, we had to [refresh] the tests one at a time,” he said.

The state Department of Education has yet to release any summary on the first phase of the trial, but a sampling of local officials said they, too, saw a process that went pretty much as expected, with some minor issues but no major problems.

For some, the trial foreshadowed a scheduling challenge, in which three or four days of state testing will now be spread across grades and subject areas.

“Planning for next year when everyone is taking the test will be a whole different ballgame when all of the classes must be tested,” said Paul Pineiro, assistant superintendent in Westfield.

“The adjustments to schedules are no longer in three-day chunks per grade. Now they take place over the course of 20 school days and by sections of grades and not full grades levels,” he said.

“Typical scheduling conventions that enabled principals to limit the disruption of testing are now not plausible,” he added. “To some extent maybe the answer is reimagining scheduling altogether.”

Emil Carafa, principal of the Washington School in Lodi, said there is no doubt now that the PARCC exams pose some new challenges for students.

“Students are asked to look deeper into their reading pieces, and they have to connect items together,” he said. ”It is no longer a read the question pick an answer.

“The math seemed to be more involved,” Carafa added. “Some problems ask the student what is wrong with the problem and how can they correct it. This is different than what we have been doing in [state] assessments.”

Still, there was plenty of chatter in New Jersey and elsewhere about deeper problems with the exams, although the evidence at this point is anecdotal. Various blogs have surfaced, most of them critical, where teachers said that the computers froze or questions made little sense to either students or educators.

One anonymous New Jersey principal wrote on one listserv: “The directions provided in test administrator manuals were unclear and poorly written, leading to confusion on the part of not only the test proctor but also the school coordinators.” “Students responded that the test was very long. A lot of stamina was needed for writing,” the principal wrote.

School groups also are seeking comments. The New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union, has begun a survey of its members.

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