Public school officials join other states in search of better education methods
12/01/2012- The Berkshire Eagle
Saturday December 1, 2012
PITTSFIELD -- As K-12 education priorities and curricula shift, so changes the landscape in student testing.
Currently, public school district and higher education faculty in Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., and 21 other states are researching, discussing and providing feedback on a development known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.
Other states belong to a similar collaboratively governed initiative known as the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. States belonging to neither group include Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas and Utah.
PARCC is one of the newer acronyms to hit the field of academics and is backed by deep federal investment.
The initiative, led by a governing board chaired by Massachusetts education Commissioner Mitchell Chester, is the recipient of a competitive $186 million Race to the Top assessment grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
The primary project of PARCC is for states to work in consortium to develop a common set of online-based K-12 student assessments in English and math to test whether students are gaining the comprehensive skills necessary to succeed in college and/or the workforce.
This in turn would create mechanisms to provide educators support in the classroom, improve technology to support the assessments and make schools more accountable to indicators of student success, like graduation rates.
The PARCC assessments will be ready for states to administer during the 2014-15 school year. The adoption of the assessments is not mandatory, and states will be able to vote whether to opt in.
Robin Getzen, an English language arts teacher at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, and Charlie Kaminski, dean of academic affairs for business, science, mathematics and technology at Berkshire Community College are PARCC educator fellows for Berkshire County, who serve as local liaisons on the initiative.
"Last year, [educators] were offered a front row seat in developing the next generation of standardized tests. My initial thought was that this was an attempt at fixing something that wasn't broken," said Getzen. "But if change was inevitable, I wanted to be a part of it to understand why and to be ahead of the curve."
The presenters said regardless of whether Massachusetts opts to adopt the PARCC assessment, even the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) will be changing to include measures to indicate college and career readiness.
"No matter what we call it, the test is going to be changing," said Getzen.
PARCC assessment prototypes are designed to be aligned with national Common Core standards in English language arts and math.
They are less inclusive of multiple choice questions and invoke students' critical thinking skills, asking them to answer questions, show sources and their process of work, and, because they are online exams, use multimedia.
"It will no longer allow students to eliminate options to get to the answer," Kaminski said.
The online component also promises faster turnaround on test results. Getzen said teachers and administrators will have a return on scores within two weeks, versus the approximately five months for a turnaround on MCAS scores.
"Teachers will be able receive results and use them to inform instruction that year," Getzen said.
Kaminski has worked with assessing and placing students into college courses using results from exams like Accuplacer and MCAS tests. He said that while MCAS tests are good indicators of student progress, they don't indicate a student's readiness for college-level work.
In Massachusetts, 37 percent of students who go on to in-state public high schools enroll in at least one remedial course of study during their first semester in college, according to state education department data. That rate increases to 65 percent among community colleges in the commonwealth.
"If students get into college, a lot of them are not going to be ready," said Doug McNally, coordinator of the Berkshire Readiness Center.