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‘Sky is the limit’ as PARCC testing gets underway; opt-outs down

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

RIO RANCHO – Two dozen third-graders filed into a computer lab at Cielo Azul Elementary and settled into their places. Some looked relaxed, chatting and giggling with friends. Others nervously chewed on their pencils or drummed their fingers on their desks. One little boy took deep, slow breaths – a relaxation exercise taught at a recent test prep assembly.

The third year of PARCC testing in New Mexico began Monday afternoon at Rio Rancho's Cielo Azul Elementary. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

The third year of PARCC testing in New Mexico began Monday afternoon at Rio Rancho’s Cielo Azul Elementary. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Welcome to the first day of PARCC, also known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. Schools across the state began administering the rigorous math and English assessment Monday, with testing scheduled to run through May.

It’s the third time New Mexico students have tackled the exam, which sparked statewide protests and an opt-out movement when the Public Education Department introduced it in spring 2015.

The demonstrations dwindled last year – only 1,560 Albuquerque Public Schools students opted out in 2016, down from 3,300 in 2015 – but PARCC remains controversial, particularly because the scores are used in teachers’ evaluations and help determine school and district grades. In New Mexico, the test is administered on computers in third through 11th grades.

The first year, concerns were raised about the computer format – would low-income students be at a disadvantage? Were enough computers available at every school?

Cielo Azul Elementary assistant principal Dana Petro said she feels the process has gotten easier over the years.

“Everything is going smoothly,” Petro said. “Definitely, the kids are more used to it.”

The school is also trying some new approaches to get everyone pumped up for the big exam.

Last week, the third-, fourth- and fifth-graders got to walk a “red carpet” while staffers and younger students showered them with confetti. The test-takers paraded around the campus to chants of “You can do it!”

“They felt like rock stars,” Petro said. “Now we are trying to keep that momentum.”

On May 5, Cielo Azul students will celebrate the end of testing by covering their teachers in silly string. Petro even volunteered to take a pie in the face to get a laugh.

“We have to do PARCC,” Petro said. “You might as well make it fun.”

‘The sky is the limit’

New Mexico Education Secretary Hanna Skandera has said the Common Core-aligned test benefits districts by “raising the bar” and providing a more accurate measure of students’ abilities.

“Our school leaders, educators, and families have much to be proud of – and the sky is the limit if we continue to pull together,” Skandera said in an emailed statement.

She touted the state’s 98 percent participation rate and a roughly 90-minute reduction in testing time per grade in 2016.

The length of the exam varies by grade. For instance, high school freshmen and sophomores will test for three days, juniors for one.

New Mexico’s students have also seen some gains in scores, though their performance is still dismal by any standard.

Last year, only 9 percent of 11th-graders were proficient in math, the worst showing of the bunch. On the high end, 45 percent of 11th-graders met the benchmark in English.

Proficiency rates for the rest of the PARCC exams range from 13 percent to 32 percent.

Stephanie Ly, president of the American Federation of Teachers New Mexico, said the entire approach is flawed because it “treats children as test scores” and takes time away from instruction. She particularly criticized the PED’s use of the assessment for “high-stakes employment decisions,” which is “simply not in the best interests of our students or schools.”

Test score growth makes up 35 percent of a teacher’s evaluation under a new system Skandera and Gov. Susana Martienz announced Sunday afternoon. Previously, the scores accounted for up to half of the evaluation – one of the highest percentages in the country. They now make up the same percentage as teacher observations.