Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Trying to peek through the PARCC gates

I have been trying to learn about the new assessments that are coming down the pike, and it has not been easy.  All I can find out for sure is that the new testing regime--known as PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers)--will be computer-based, instead of paper-and-pencil, that it is tied to the new Common Core Standards, and that it is supposed to be fully operational in two years, during the 2014-2015 schoolyear.  

What I suspect is that the new testing regime will end up meaning more testing than what we have now, and that it will require enormous expenditure of money and time, but despite a couple of hours of poking around the internet, I haven't been able to find any very clear discussion of what the testing will actually look like.  I have a few very basic questions, none of which have been answered by the many pages of the PARCC website and the state DOE website (which just sends us back to the PARCC website!), nor by the dozens of other articles and websites I have consulted.  Here are my questions:

1)  What will these computer-based PARCC tests will mean for schools, like ours, that don't have nearly enough computers?

Our school has about 500 students in each grade, and we have nowhere near 500 computers, so giving a computer-based test would mean either buying a LOT of new machines or...

2) Could these tests be given to different students on different days?

One way to handle the issue of not having enough computers would be to do the testing over a period of several days.  This would be a logistical headache, but could work.  This would mean, however, that students who took it later might hear about the content of the exam from students who had already taken it.  With paper-based tests that is not possible, as we in Massachusetts have just learned. Whether the computer-based tests would have so many possible questions that this wouldn't be an issue is unclear; I'm skeptical.

3) Will we need to add huge amounts of bandwidth?

The answer to this seems to be yes--but I don't know how much, nor how much it will cost.  I've read a report about the technical requirements of states that have already done computer-based testing, and the report says we will need a fair amount, and that "this bandwidth requirement must be in addition to the normal day-to-day bandwidth capacity needed for teaching and learning, communications, and management/accountability systems."  In other words, whatever bandwidth we already have shouldn't be used for the testing; the bandwidth for testing will all have to be newly installed.

4) Will there be more testing than we have now?

This is perhaps the most important question, and it is striking how completely everybody seems to avoid it.  The PARCC consortium, the Common Core people, the state DOE, and so on--none of their websites address the question of how much testing will be done.  Nevertheless, the system is clearly being set up to test kids several times a year; one of the great virtues of the computer-based testing is supposedly that the results will come back more quickly.

Slide 5 of a powerpoint presentation given by a PARCC official to a PARCC meeting in Massachusetts seems to show 5 assessments over the course of a year: Diagnostic Assessment; Midyear Assessment; ELA Speaking and Listening Assessment; Performance Based Assessment; and an End-of-Year Assessment.  If this model were to be adopted, it looks to me like kids would take 5 state tests in several subjects every single year.  That's a lot!

5) What do we take away from this?

The fact that PARCC and the DOE are so remarkably unforthcoming about their plans, and about the cost of their plans, does not strike me as auspicious.  My school is spending a lot of time and energy this week just on giving our tenth graders the English MCAS.  What I'm learning about PARCC makes me worry that much more testing, and much more expense of time and money, is on the way.

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