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

“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.

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