PARCC Pilot Ramps Up for Round Two, Amid Educator Anxieties

John Mooney | May 19, 2014 | Education
Worries about technology continue to head the list, although DOE says there are simple fixes for many

As the next round of Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) field testing gets under way, lessons continue to emerge as to how ready New Jersey is to go statewide with the online exams.

A new survey from the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association of more than 220 principals and supervisors who participated in the first round of field tests this winter found them, at best, anxious about seeing the tests taken statewide, many citing technological and logistical problems.

And the state’s largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, put out its own less-scientific findings from a poll of its members, which included many of the same concerns.

“I can’t imagine the scheduling it will take for me with a building of 900 students and many special-ed students,” said one Monmouth County principal.

Administrators and teachers attested to tests freezing onscreen, answers disappearing, and laptop batteries dying. Several said the length of the testing, especially for young students, was scary.

“In my mind, 70 minutes was way too long for nine- and 10-year olds to sit and work on a task,” one Essex County teacher said.

The state’s readiness for PARCC has been a flashpoint of debate, with pressure mounting from the Legislature to put off using results from the tests in evaluating both schools and teachers.

An Assembly education committee hearing on a bill to delay the use of the results for up to two years drew nearly 100 people last week. The legislation was passed unanimously –- supported by Democrats and Republicans alike.

The bill could be posted for full Assembly vote as early as Thursday, and appears to have at least some support in the Senate, although its passage there is far less certain.

Either way, questions as to whether the state’s public schools will have the technology in place and educators trained in time are not going away.

The state Department of Education has put a rosier picture on the field testing so far, saying in April after the first round that feedback that PARCC was “an overall positive experience.” But officials acknowledged some issues to resolve, many of them concerning technology.

On Friday, a spokesman for the department said the problems were hardly insurmountable. He said one solution was as simple as downloading — or caching — the full test to the school computers rather than relying on remote servers, which could be bandwidth-constrained and thus slow down the process.

“There are countless dedicated educators, technology specialists, and principals who’ve been working hard to make this a success,” said Michael Yaple, the department’s communications director. “They’ve been sharing information — among each other, with state officials — and we’ve been sharing our insights, as well.”

Yaple said that 1,340 schools in 485 districts are participating in the second round– 70 schools and 40 districts more than took part in the first round.

The survey, conducted by the NJPSA, found the technological challenges were widespread, with more than 80 percent of administrators saying they had issues with computers and bandwidth.

A majority said they were relatively minor and could be easily fixed, but a majority also said they expected them to continue.

Still, in an interesting finding for those who have feared the tests will be too difficult an adjustment, several administrators said the tests were not as difficult as they thought they would be, and 90 percent said that students had enough time to complete the tests.

That didn’t necessarily lessen their apprehensions, however, with close to 90 percent of administrators at least “somewhat anxious” about the tests going statewide and 20 percent “extremely anxious.”

“We had four kids out of 20 on average with tech issues,” said a principal. “That becomes gigantic when we test 5,000 students.”