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Explainer: Looking at PARCC, As Much-Debated Testing Enters Second Year

NJ students taking the online exams this year will do it in single testing period, rather than two separate sessions

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What’s happening: As school districts and students' families get the first results of the controversial online PARCC exams, some things will remain the same while other things change as New Jersey approaches its second round of the much-debated tests.

What it is: New Jersey is one of seven states, plus Washington, D.C., that are part of the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). The consortium is developing and administering the new online standardized test in language arts and math for students in third grade through 11th grade. The first administration of the PARCC exams in New Jersey was last spring -- results are now being released to school districts and families.

What it means: The PARCC tests continues to represent a big change in the way New Jersey and other states assess their students, both in terms of the platform and the content. The online platform is a major departure from the traditional paper-and-pencil exams that have dominated New Jersey’s testing up until last year.

The content -- which is aligned with the new Common Core State Standards and their more rigorous benchmarks for student learning -- is also more difficult than what students have encountered in the past.

The first results have shown just how difficult. In most grades, barely half of New Jersey students met performance “expectations” set by PARCC, and in some grades and subjects, the passing rate was down to just a quarter of students.

The debate: In New Jersey and elsewhere, the fight involves a variety of interests, on both the left and the right of the political spectrum, with much of the debate centering on the use of testing in evaluating students, teachers and schools.

Led by Save Our Schools NJ, some parent groups have fought PARCC, decrying it as as an example of over-testing, contending schools spend far too much time in assessing students and prepping students for the exams. New Jersey had one of the nation’s largest percentage of students whose families chose to have them sit out the testing last spring.

Still others don’t like the idea of any kind of nationally based standards and testing, saying that education approaches and policies should left to local communities to decide. Since last year, a dozen states have dropped out of the PARCC partnership.

The consequences: It isn’t just about students. Some of the strongest resistance in New Jersey has been from the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union.

The NJEA’s leadership has called for an end to the use of the tests as part of teacher evaluations, saying the methods have not been proven accurate or effective. Several bills seeking a delay in the use of PARCC in evaluating teachers have stalled, but the political pressure did prompt the Christie administration to keep student performance on the test to just 10 percent of relevant teachers’ evaluations.

Who’s for it: The testing still has a strong base of support as a needed improvement on the state’s prior exams. While Gov. Chris Christie himself has backed off from his support of the Common Core State Standards that serve as PARCC’s benchmarks, his administration continues to support the PARCC tests themselves. The major education groups representing school boards and administrators, as well as the state’s top business groups and the statewide PTA, also still support the PARCC testing.

Who administers the test and how much it costs: The PARCC consortium has selected Pearson Publishing to administer and score the test. The price tag depends on how one does the math. The cost of the tests themselves is roughly the same per student as the current testing, or about $21 million statewide, according to state officials. Also a big cost came in fast-tracking the required technology, with some districts saying they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to have the necessary computers and bandwidth in place.

How it works: Students are permitted to take the tests on a range of approved technology platforms, ranging from desktop computers to tablets. Students last year sat for the test in two sections during the year, once in the spring to complete the performance-based section of the test, including writing, and a second time at the end of the year for a test of content and knowledge. This year, that format has been reduced to a single testing period, reducing the total testing time by about 90 minutes.

How long it takes: The testing time varies by grade. Third-graders will sit for about eight hours and 15 minutes this spring. The testing time lengthens for each grade, reaching 9 ½ hours for high school students.

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