Selected Garden State Schools Put Tough New PARCC Exams to the Test

John Mooney | August 5, 2013 | Education
With first round of limited tryouts complete, online testing partnership announces New Jersey will be part of broader field tests

A sample question from the PARCC Test
Nicholas Diaz knew all about the debate around the online testing coming to New Jersey in two years, and the questions as to whether both the schools and the students would be ready.

And he admits he was a little nervous when the Somerville school he led last year signed up to try out the language arts part of the exams being developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC).

Diaz’s third- and fifth-graders at the Van Derveer School were among the guinea pigs.

“We were a little worried at first, this being the first time any of us had seen the test,” said Diaz, now a principal in Manville. “But they were pretty savvy — they are a lot more tech savvy than we think they are.”

As for the rigor of the new test, Diaz said it is no doubt a different kind of exam, with students given familiar reading sections but then asked to do different things with them. For instance, one question asked for them to write an alternative ending.

“They were waiting for a bunch of multiple choice questions, and instead they saw text they that had to highlight on the computer and other places where they would type in the words,” he said.

The Somerville school was one of 44 chosen from 18 districts to conduct New Jersey’s first PARCC practice this winter and spring. New Jersey was one of 10 states doing small-scale tryouts.

One-half of the New Jersey group, including Somerville, had entire classes sit down to take a small section of the test, either math or language arts, to gauge technological needs and capabilities and the merits of the questions themselves. Students were also surveyed afterward on their impressions of the tests.

The other group tested individual questions with different students to see how they deal with the format and various tools, such as highlighters and calculators. The aim was to look over students’ shoulders and see what they understood and what held them up.

This first round of is only going to intensify in the coming year, with PARCC announcing last week that New Jersey will be one of 14 states to conduct broader field tests before the exams go statewide in 2014-2015. The PARCC consortium includes 20 states in all.

As many as a 10th of New Jersey students who will be tested under PARCC in grades 3-8 will be participating in one form or another in the coming field tests, according to state officials.

The districts will be chosen in the next few months, and once they have accepted or declined, the participants will be announced in October. They are being picked for demographic diversity, so PARCC can ensure as broad a cross-section as possible, officials said.

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“PARCC’s commitment is about developing the items in the most responsible way possible,” said Bari Erlichson, the state assistant commissioner overseeing the work. “We’d like to involve as many schools as are willing.”

Erlichson said a practice version of a complete PARCC test would also be made available to all New Jersey schools next year to review. Sample questions are available now on PARCC’s website.

The proposed speed of the rollout has been one of the points of contention, with some saying PARCC should give every district a chance to administer the test in full before results are used for students, schools, and teachers.

These arguments are not lost on some of the districts that were part of the previous field tests, but those interviewed gave the impression that the system worked better than many had expected.

“From a functionality standpoint, I have to say it was impressive,” said Chad Marcus, curriculum and technology director for North Brunswick, which saw three schools participate.

With the practice tests given in the last week of school in June, Marcus said the transition for students was easier than he thought it would be, many of them familiar working on computers both in school and at home.

Some tasks, he said, may still prove especially challenging. The language arts section is to include a writing section where third graders have to write the equivalent of a page, and older students two or more. “My bigger concern is the typing skills that will be needed,” Marcus said.

But Marcus said that technologically the formats appeared to hold up, with the hardware and software requirements not an easy lift for a district like his but not insurmountable. The testing in North Brunswick was overseen by Pearson Inc., one of the vendors vying to administer the test for PARCC.

The district is already on a plan to purchase 2,500 new workstations and laptops, while retiring 500 existing ones. He said it has updated its software, and has the necessary bandwidth that PARCC testing will require.

“It’s always a work in progress, but in terms of infrastructure, we had been aggressively improving already,” he said.

Marcus said there is a lot weighing on districts right now, including the new Common Core State Standards and evaluation requirements for teachers and principals that will rely heavily on the testing. The controversial evaluation system goes in place this fall.

“To raise the stakes [for educators] without all these issues yet resolved, that’s a concern for a lot of districts,” he said.

At the same time, Marcus said the kids so far are taking it in stride — at least from their first encounter.

“Interacting with a computer is a lot more fun for them than interacting four or five days with a test booklet,” he said. “I’m sure the novelty will wear off at some point, but they did seem to enjoy the experience.”

Diaz, the former Somerville principal, said he also was encouraged. He said the new age of testing will help drive more critical thinking in instruction and learning, and the use of online tools will press schools to integrate laptops and other devices into their earliest grades.

As for the practice tests, Diaz hopes the field testing will include his new district next. ”I am hoping they will let us do it next in Manville,” he said.