Topic Number One: Scores on New Online Test – and the Sobering Results

John Mooney | October 28, 2015 | Education
As school boards group holds annual event in Atlantic City, the buzz is about just-released scores on PARCC exams

One of the technology vendor's displays featured an early 20th century portrayal of how kids in the future would learn, with books directly converted to knowledge that would then be electrically transmitted into students' heads.
Even the tech salesmen were talking about it.

The recently released statewide PARCC test results were the talk of the town — even among the many vendors on hand for the event — as more than 6,000 school board members and administrators assembled in Atlantic City yesterday for the annual gathering sponsored by the New Jersey School Boards Association.

“It’s always about the test scores,” said John McCabe, a salesman for Epson, the technology company, selling a digital projector from his exhibitor’s booth on the floor of the Atlantic City Convention Center.

Such is the state of affairs in New Jersey, as well as many other states, with the roll-out of first-ever results from the much-debated online PARCC exams, the statewide language arts and math tests administered for the first time this past spring.

The state’s overall test results were announced earlier this month – and only about one-third of New Jersey students demonstrated grade-level proficiency based on the new test’s metrics.

District-by-district and school-by-school results will come out in a few weeks – and there’s already plenty of concern in school districts not used to be told they are underperforming.

State Education Commissioner David Hespe, who spoke to a several hundred attendees about testing, sometimes sounded more like a therapist than the state’s top education official.

“PARCC is just a test,” he told the group. “It’s a tool, and let’s not vilify it or certainly glorify it. Let’s use it in the classroom, but also remember that student success and PARCC are not the same.”

Neverthelss, Hespe devoted a good chunk of his talk to the subject of PARCC, and there is no question it was on many minds as the state has put many of its resources into the rollout of the new test and its results.

Several school superintendents talked afterwards about the new testing, saying it’s hard to avoid it as a topic of conversation these days.

The relatively low statewide scores gave pause, they agreed, but they said the information expected to be gleaned from the new testing should prove beneficial.

“I’m still in a stage of hopefulness that the results will be in a form where we can use them well,” said Patrick Fletcher, superintendent of the River Dell Regional School district in Bergen County and president of the state’s superintendents association.

“But that remains to be seen,” he added. “For me, it looks like it is good, but I still need to see it.”

[related]Added Judith Rattner, the superintendent of Berkeley Heights schools: “The reports will have a lot of really valuable information that, if used properly, will really inform instruction and really allow us to differentiate instruction.”

But she conceded that lower achievement levels will be a tough sell in her affluent district: “I don’t think you are ever prepared for that, really. You always have high expectations that you are doing a great job and that the results will in fact reinforce that.”

But she said there are so many variables in this first year – particularly how seriously students approached the new exams — that it will be tough to make any final determinations based on the inaugural round of testing.

“We don’t know how focused they were in taking the tests, and really at this point, there isn’t any way to delve into the tests to see if they were accurate,” Rattner said.

Richard Bozza, executive director of the superintendents association, called it a “moving project.”

“The issue here is to see if they will be in a usable form that is simple for people to use,” Bozza said.

“It will be important that it can be used effectively and efficiently,” added Fletcher, “and until we see it, I’m still from Missouri: Show me.”