By Chris Maza
Robert Bickerton, senior associate commissioner for the Department of Elementary and Secondary education, talks about the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) assessment test, which will be piloted this spring, at a public forum at Minnechaug Regional High School on March 5.
Reminder Publications photo by Chris Maza
WILBRAHAM – Representatives from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) were met by messages of concern and opposition by parents and educators alike during a presentation outlining the piloting of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) assessment tests at Minnechaug Regional High School on March 5.
One local parent and teacher asserted that the test represented a trend in which the education in the country was developing “a society of test-takers and not of critical thinkers,” while others questioned the need for the test, its effectiveness, and districts’ ability to properly administer it.
Robert Bickerton, DESE senior associate commissioner, and Maureen LaCroix, special assistant to the deputy commissioner, spoke to a group of approximately 50 parents, teachers, administrators and members of local school committees on the test, which will be rolled out in a test phase to evaluate its effectiveness this Spring, claiming it to be a better, more comprehensive assessment. This year’s pilot will be the only time Massachusetts will have to evaluate the process before making a decision on whether to adopt it.
In 2010, Bickerton explained, Gov. Deval Patrick, Secretary of Education Paul Reville and DESE Commissioner Mitchell Chester signed a memorandum of agreement that stated the Commonwealth agreed to adopt PARCC assessments “provided they are at least as comprehensive and rigorous as our current MCAS [Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System] assessments, if not more so.”
LaCroix stressed that the pilot would not be used to test the student, but to “test the test and the test elements.” No results for students, schools or districts would be reported, she said.
He added that Massachusetts was taking part in the pilot because it was the state’s only opportunity to have input on the assessment to ensure that it is properly implemented and serves the best interest of students in the Commonwealth.
As reported by Reminder Publications in February, students in the East Longmeadow, Longmeadow and Hampden-Wilbraham Regional school districts will be among the 81,000 students, representing 8 percent of the state’s total enrollment in public schools, who will take part in the field tests. Classes, LaCroix said, were chosen randomly to take either math or English language arts (ELA) tests – no class will take both during the pilot.
The PARCC assessment was developed to align with the new Common Core State Standards adopted in 2011 and would eventually completely replace the (MCAS) test.
“PARCC is being designed to be a more comprehensive system,” Bickerton said.
Bickerton explained that unlike the MCAS, PARCC results would be available the same year it was taken – results for MCAS tests taken in the spring are not available until the following fall – and the MCAS’ summative format does not give educators information on students’ progress as they move through their curriculum.
“The goal here is to get information in the hands of teachers, students, parents and schools in the district in a more timely manner,” he said.
Bickerton said contrary to what parents might have heard, neither districts, nor individuals, would be allowed to opt out of the pilot testing.
The first round of PARCC testing will begin this month, which Bickerton said coincided with the MCAS testing schedule with “performance-based assessments (PBA),” designed to measure a student’s progress within the school year. Districts participating in the pilot may opt out of MCAS testing. Classes chosen to take math assessments will participate in two testing sessions, while ELA test takers are required to take three sessions. Both math and ELA tests will be human scored.
Another test will take place in May – the “end-of-year assessment” (EOY), during which math and ELA test takers will each participate in two sessions, including computer-based assessments, to determine a student’s aptitude at the end of the year.
When asked by Reminder Publications to respond to concerns raised by parents and educators that the educational system places too much dependency and emphasis on standardized testing, Bickerton gave a response outlining the timing of assessments, stating that PARCC would require less time than the MCAS.
While MCAS assessments are untimed, allowing schools to take entire days to administer them, PARCC assessments have a designated duration. Students who do not complete the test in that time would be allowed extra team equaling up to 50 percent of the original time limit, but no more.
Actual durations have not been determined, but Bickerton said the average timetable for a test during the pilot would be one hour. Students with disabilities would receive time accommodations outlined in their individualized education plan (IEP) or 504 plan – an alternative for students with a learning disability who do not qualify for an IEP.
Many voiced concerns regarding the philosophy of the test, criticizing the state for utilizing students as “Guinea pigs” with unproven testing practices.
Opponents also questioned why, with such high standards for learning in Massachusetts in existence, the state needed to change its practices at all. Bickerton and LaCroix responded by arguing that the standards and testing are regularly revisited and with or without PARCC, the state would be engaged in a similar process.
Bickerton said the new test will provide a better idea of how students will fare beyond high school, explaining that a large number of students who pass the MCAS test and go on to college still end up in remedial education classes and the majority of those students end up dropping out.
Some members of the audience pointed out that some who helped craft the frameworks for education reform in the state, including former Department of Education Senior Associate Commissioner Sandra Stotsky and former state Senate President Tom Birmingham, were opposed to the standards and the test.
Bickerton, who said he worked with Stotsky said there was “a lot of misinformation” being disseminated to the public and his former colleague was among those doing so.
Several people questioned the computerized portion of the standards, expressing doubts in the ability of districts statewide to be able to properly administer the test without significant expense to cities and towns. Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School Committee member Marc Ducey questioned whether there would be any relief for schools in need of technology upgrades.
LaCroix said the state House of Representatives had approved a $38 million bond that was now in front of the Senate, adding it would be the first technology bond in the state since 1999.
Robert Russell, a Wilbraham selectman and Republican challenger for state Rep. Angelo Puppolo Jr.’s seat, criticized the bond, telling Reminder Publications that given the number of schools in Massachusetts, the average monetary aid a school would receive would be approximately $20,000.
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