New critical-thinking state tests cause angst

More than 1 million students to start taking PARCC standardized tests

  • Students at Marlowe Middle School take the state's new standardized test, PARCC, on Tuesday in Lake in the Hills. Huntley Elementary District 158 was among districts that began testing this week. Nearly 1 million students statewide are expected to take the test this spring.

      Students at Marlowe Middle School take the state's new standardized test, PARCC, on Tuesday in Lake in the Hills. Huntley Elementary District 158 was among districts that began testing this week. Nearly 1 million students statewide are expected to take the test this spring. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Marlowe Middle School students use their Chromebooks to take the state's new standardized test, PARCC, on Tuesday in Lake in the Hills. A majority of schools will take the test starting next Monday.

      Marlowe Middle School students use their Chromebooks to take the state's new standardized test, PARCC, on Tuesday in Lake in the Hills. A majority of schools will take the test starting next Monday. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Students at Marlowe Middle School in Lake in the Hills take the state's new standardized test, PARCC, on Tuesday. Nearly 1 million students statewide are expected to take the test this spring.

      Students at Marlowe Middle School in Lake in the Hills take the state's new standardized test, PARCC, on Tuesday. Nearly 1 million students statewide are expected to take the test this spring. Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 3/4/2015 4:57 AM

Growing angst over the state's new standardized achievement test has suburban educators crossing their fingers that testing goes smoothly.

Thousands of third- through ninth-graders statewide this week will take the first round of Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers -- PARCC -- test in mathematics and English language arts/literacy during the next several weeks.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

More than 111,000 students participated in PARCC field testing last year. Nearly 1 million students are taking the test for real now.

Some suburban educators fear the new test is too difficult, takes too long and moves students away from real learning. They also say the state adopted the test without allowing districts enough time for preparation.

"That's just a big leap from a small pilot to full-scale implementation with results that are going to count," Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 Superintendent Jeff Schuler said. "If the testing process doesn't go well and creates a significant amount of angst, that's going to be felt by the teachers and students. They are very anxious, and candidly, nervous about it."

Suburban teachers complain of spending numerous hours training to administer the test. But the greater concern is that students will spend nearly double the time -- between 10 and 12 hours spread among several days depending on grade level -- in PARCC testing compared to its predecessor, the Illinois Standards Achievement Test.

"It's a lot of assessment," Huntley Unit District 158 Superintendent John Burkey said. "At the end of the day, it's going to take kids away from instruction more than we would like to see."

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The test will be given in two parts -- the performance-based assessment that's going on now and end-of-year assessments starting late next month.

The performance-based portion involves fewer multiple choice questions and much more emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving. Students will be required to read and analyze text and videos, and complete multi-step math problems. It also includes writing -- a crucial skill for high school graduates sought by colleges, universities and employers.

The end-of-year assessment is shorter and will resemble the ISAT, which PARCC replaces along with the Prairie State Achievement Exam taken by 11th-graders. Students must answer computer-based, machine-scorable questions.

Combined, the two parts emphasize rigor, depth and application of knowledge, not just rote memorization, Illinois State Board of Education officials say.

PARCC tests students' understanding of key concepts they have learned, their reasoning and ability to apply those concepts to real-world problems, said Kathy Felt, associate professor of mathematics at Western Illinois University and an eighth grade math teacher who assisted with development of the test.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"We are asking the students to go much deeper ... finding evidence in the text from which they just learned," she said.

It measures student achievement under Illinois' new, more rigorous learning standards in English language arts and math and is much more closely aligned to Common Core State Standards than ISAT.

More than 40 states, including Illinois, have adopted federally conceived Common Core standards, which establish clear expectations for what students should learn in those subjects at each grade level.

"It is a challenging test, and we have to just know that our curriculum is strong and that our students will be prepared just through their classroom experiences," said Erika Schlichter, District 158 chief academic officer.

Technical woes:

Where ISAT was given entirely on paper, PARCC is designed as an online test.

That poses a challenge for districts unable to provide enough computers for all students.

This year, one in four students statewide will take the test using the traditional paper-and-pencil format as those school districts work to get the necessary technological and broadband infrastructure.

"It is a lot of work for schools and school districts," said Laura Hill, Elgin Area School District U-46 director of assessment and accountability. "We were trying to originally do 50 percent (testing online)."

But for the state's second-largest school district with more than 40,000 students in 40 elementary buildings, eight middle schools and five high schools, that was a huge undertaking. Nearly 21,000 U-46 students will be taking the PARCC test starting next week.

"We have selected our fifth and sixth grade to test online," Hill said. "Third- and fourth-graders all throughout our district are doing it on paper and pencil. One (middle school) is online, the other seven will be paper and pencil. The high school is trying to go completely online. We are not a one-to-one (technology) district. The scheduling is the issue. It will probably take our high schools 10 days to get their entire freshman class through (testing)."

In late January, the state education board granted school districts the option of switching to paper tests.

Despite having the technological capability, District 200 opted to have more than 7,000 students take the test entirely on paper because administrators didn't want to deal with potential glitches with the online format in the first year of implementation.

"We jumped at it," Schuler said. "The fact that, that opportunity was made available so late in the game, for us raised some concerns over the certainty of the system itself."

Even in a technologically advanced district such as District 158 nearly half of its 5,325 students taking the test this week will be doing so on paper. Officials say they were forced to administer the test on paper for most elementary students because the online test is incompatible with the Android-based tablets provided in those grades.

"PARCC does not support that operating system right now," Burkey said. "That really bothers me."

The goal is for all Illinois students to take the test online within the next few years.

Qualitative results

Schuler said educators are on edge about not only testing logistics but also how the results will be measured.

"We don't know how it's going to ultimately impact people from an accountability perspective ... how ultimately the scores are going to come back, and are they going to come back in time that they are going to be useful for us," he said. "It would have eliminated a lot of angst if this had just been acknowledged as a baseline year."

Burkey is concerned about comparing paper tests to online tests, though both are expected to take roughly the same amount of time to complete.

"I don't know how valid that data is going to be," he said. "PARCC is meant to give teachers feedback about how kids are doing. That's not what's going to happen this first year."

The online and paper tests are built from the same blueprints so "we make sure that we are measuring the same content with the same level of rigor," said Wes Bruce, consultant to the assessment and accountability division of the state education board.

Online test answers to multiple choice questions, and those requiring formulas and drag-and-drop responses will be scored instantly, while extended-response answers will be scored manually. Paper tests will be scanned and scored at the same time as the manual portion of online tests, he added.

Overall test results will be available to schools and parents in the fall as with previous school report cards.

"The goal of the program is to have those results back within weeks of the time the state ends its testing," Bruce said. "This is the first year so it's unique in that we have to set the performance levels."

Some educators say the biggest benefit of PARCC is that students nationwide are taking the same test, which levels the playing field for those students when applying for colleges.

"You can see what a third grader is doing in a different state that has PARCC ... you could compare students across the country eventually," U-46's Hill said. "We've never had that before."

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