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Students prepare to take the PARCC plunge

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

Students across New Mexico will begin taking the state’s new standardized test Monday and, while school officials are hopeful things go well, many admit they’re anxious as the exam moves to computers for the first time.

For more than a year, school officials have been preparing for the Partnership for Readiness of College and Career exam – which will test students in grades 3-11 in English, reading and math, and replaces the Standards Based Assessment.

Student scores from the exam will be used in calculating A-F school grades and teacher evaluations, and the 11th-grade version of the test will be used as a graduation requirement.

SKANDERA: Testing is not new; PARCC replaces SBA

SKANDERA: Testing is not new; PARCC replaces SBA

New Mexico is one of 11 states giving the PARCC exam for the first time this spring. The exam, which is the same in each state, is designed to show how well students are learning under the Common Core State Standards, which the state adopted in full last school year.

On the eve of the test, school officials say there are reasons PARCC has them on edge, including whether there will be computer glitches, how well students adjust to the new test and whether their testing schedules will hold up.

“We’re nervous,” said Wilson Middle School Principal Ann Piper. “Quite frankly, staff is nervous. I’m nervous.”

State Education Secretary Hanna Skandera said the move to Common Core and PARCC is happening because New Mexico is raising the bar on its education system. Common Core and PARCC are also designed to ensure students in participating states are tested in the same way and to the same standards.

“We have higher expectations,” Skandera told the Journal last week. “We are testing whether they are truly ready for college or a career.”

New Mexico’s previous statewide test, the Standards Based Assessment, was designed to test students under the state’s former standards in reading and math.

Scheduling challenges

New Mexico’s switch to PARCC has fostered cries from some parents and teachers who say students are being overtested in schools.

They argue PARCC and other tests eat up too much regular class time that students need in order to learn.

Skandera said she agrees there is too much testing overall, but PARCC is not to blame. She pointed instead to redundant tests required by local school districts.

Skandera said she is somewhat mystified at the consternation over PARCC, noting it replaces the SBA and isn’t an additional test.

Skandera said PARCC requires the same or less testing time, depending on grade level, than the SBA and that statewide tests have long been required by the federal government.

“We have given a state assessment for decades, as do all the other states in the nation. So, there is an element of perspective that seems to be lost because (the PARCC) is unknown and it’s new,” Skandera said.

Yet, while the PARCC doesn’t require more testing time, because it is taken on a computer – and schools have fewer computers than students – it will be more cumbersome to administer.

With the SBA, schools could block out a couple days for testing and students could test at the same time because they each received their own paper version of the test.

But, with PARCC, principals and school testing coordinators have to find ways to shuffle students through their computer labs in order to take the test over several days.

This presented challenges for principals and school testing coordinators, like how to limit the interruption to regular class time or how to schedule around dual-credit classes taken at local colleges.

School officials said one of their main goals was to limit the disruption to regular class time.

At Eldorado High School, for example, students will take the English Language Arts portion of the PARCC during their English classes and the math portion of the test during their math classes, said testing coordinator Lauren McDougall.

That way, the only classes they will miss will be in the subjects they are testing, she said.

This is a tack many APS high schools have taken, said Rose-Ann McKernan, APS executive director of instructional accountability.

There were many hurdles to overcome when creating schedules, McDougall said. One challenge was what to do about Eldorado students attending classes at APS’ Career Enrichment Center, which offers vocational courses in career areas like medicine, computers and engineering, among others.

She said if CEC classes create a conflict with their testing time, students should go to their CEC class and they will be tested later in the testing window.

Other schools used different testing schedules. For example, Wilson Middle School will test students by grade level, with sixth-graders testing in the first week, seventh-graders in the second week and eighth-graders in the third week, Piper said.

Piper is confident her school’s schedule will work for giving the test but, because it disrupts the normal class schedule, the challenge will be making sure students receive good instruction while they’re not testing, she said.

Beware the glitch

There will be glitches, Skandera said. Her comments were echoed by APS officials and principals.

The question is how disruptive will they be, said testing coordinators interviewed for this story.

Earlier this year, PED asked districts to execute a dry run of the PARCC exam by having students take an online sample version of the test in order to test schools’ infrastructure.

In APS, there were widespread difficulties, McKernan reported to the school board last month. Many students had difficulty logging in and out of the test. She said the district made a software fix on school computers that should address many of the problems.

McKernan said schools have a protocol for addressing test disruptions, which include instructions on who teachers should call for tech help and what to do with students.

Skandera said addressing computer glitches was the point of the practice run.

Paul Romero, APS chief technology officer, said he is confident the district’s computer network and bandwidth will stand up to the demands of the test.

The stakes

Part of the reason teachers, principals and parents are worried about the transition to the PARCC is because student scores will have consequences, which was also the case with the SBA.

The scores will be used in teacher evaluations and school grades, and the test will be used as a graduation requirement for the high school juniors who take the test.

Skandera noted that, while the PARCC will be used as a graduation requirement system, students can also “show competency” by passing other approved tests in the same subject or by completing an “alternative demonstration of competency.”

Another concern is that, because PARCC is new, it will be impossible to tell how much the computer format negatively influenced student test scores.

“The most difficult evolution is from the paper and pencil to the computer … We worry about test scores when the nature of the test is an X factor,” said Sam Chavez, an assistant principal at Eldorado High School, who has worked to organize the school’s testing schedule.

Skandera said PARCC won’t derail teacher or school ratings.

Even though PARCC is more difficult than the SBA and lower scores are expected, that won’t impact ratings because the state will be able to “crosswalk” the scores between the two tests so student scores can be fairly compared, Skandera said.

She argued that, by using statistical samples, PED should be able to show what SBA score would translate into the same performance on PARCC.

Skandera also said that, because the ratings are based on growth in student scores over a three-year period, this year’s PARCC score will contribute to only a fraction of a teacher or school’s overall rating.

This year’s PARCC test will first be used in the teacher evaluations and school grades that come out next year. There is a one-year lag before the data is used in those ratings – so this year’s PARCC scores, which Skandera says can be weighted to SBA equivalency, won’t show up in evaluations until 2016.