Somerville Took the PARCC, March 15, 2014

About 40 people tried the PARCC online sample test in Somerville Saturday morning and then talked about the impact of PARCC and other high-pressure tests on our students. Take-The-Test Day was sponsored by the Somerville Teachers Association (STA), Citizens for Public Schools, and the School Department’s Family Learning Collaborative. 

We used a school computer lab to take the sample tests. There are versions available for grades 3-5, 6-8, and high school. (Google “PARCC computer test items.” Try the high school test if you dare!) Because there were parents, teachers and school committee members in the room, it was an opportunity for a rich exchange of perspectives and knowledge about many aspects of the tests.

Melora Rush, president of the school PTA, began by asking people what it felt like to take the test. “Intimidating,” said one mother. “I found it really challenging, as a person who is fairly formally educated.”

What are the implications of moving to an online test format?

Given the fact that the PARCC tests will be administered online, one father asked if the students are used to learning from computers.

A teacher responded by describing the disappearance of computers from her classroom over the years. “In middle school, each classroom had 8-10 PCs. Over the year, as the cost went up, they disappeared.”

Another teacher said teachers have been trained to practice “balanced literacy,” which involves pushing children to physically engage with the text by marking it up. “As a teacher, this [online PARCC test] is the opposite of how we have been pushed to teach.”

A father said he asked his first grade daughter when was the last time she got to use computer. She did not remember.

One woman said she found the test and format challenging but was intrigued by the mixed format and liked that there were different ways to answer the test questions.

A teacher said they don’t have staff in the building to teach typing. Drag and drop features are interesting, but this “privileges kids who really know how to use computers.” She noted that students will have to write essays in a timed format. “Kids will be using hunt and peck typing because we don’t have computer teachers.”

Another teacher raised the equity issue of who can and cannot afford technology at home. What about parents who choose not to let their kids use computers because of advice from pediatricians about the dangers of too much screen time for young children?

A father said that students will need to be explicitly taught to use test-taking accommodations. “When will that be taught and where will the time come from?” he asked.

How will English Language Learners be affected? 

A teacher asked if there has been any consideration given to English language learners? “I don’t hear anything about ELLs,” she said.

Another teacher said Massachusetts teachers are taking ReTELL (professional development) to become more skilled at ELL teaching. She said the PARCC questions are the opposite of how she’s been taught to teach ELLs. “How can the state say this is the right way to teach ELLs but we’re going to test you a different way?” she asked.

How does the PARCC content compare with MCAS?

A high school math teacher said that, for high school math, the topics being tested are a much deeper level of critical thinking than typically you see on MCAS. So the amount of time to process many concepts would be considerable. This would be a challenge.

She noted that MCAS has introductory level questions at the top. Then all the way at the end are the more difficult questions. That was missing in PARCC.

Alain Jehlen said the DESE has said Massachusetts wanted the PARCC tests to be untimed but wasn’t able to get other states in the PARCC consortium to go along. (If a student with disabilities has an individual education plan that says they need more time, they will get more time.)

Unanswered Questions

Parents and teachers said they lacked sufficient clear information about the pilot tests. A father said the PARCC pilot tests are being sold to his son as a real test, not a trial run. Another parent said he doesn’t feel he knows what a field test is. “If I don’t understand most parents don’t. Is there a decision made that this is the future?”

What is the value of high-stakes testing in general?

A mother said she thinks her kids’ Somerville school is fantastic, but that is never reflected in the test scores. “It pisses me off every time I get the numbers. If you use strictly numbers to assess my school, it looks like it sucks. My problem is not my kid taking a test because she does well. You have to look at other ways to assess success. Other districts are doing portfolios.”

Dan Futrell, who represents Ward 2 on the Somerville School Committee, responded. “I really appreciate and agree 100% with what you said. We need to look at all the things we care about in our students. I urge you to keep having this discussion. We could be a leader in figuring out how to do this right.”

The Somerville group decided they want to hold another PARCC event and do broader outreach to include a more representative sample of the community. If you’d like to try Take-The-Test in your community, CPS will help!–Report by Lisa Guisbond