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Q&A: A primer on the new PARCC exams

Here are some basics about the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests slated to replace MCAS, the state’s 15-year old testing system for tracking student progress and ranking schools and teachers.

What is PARCC?

A 19-state consortium working with the Pearson education company to develop new computer-based exams in English and math. Massachusetts’ Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester is on the governing board of PARCC, one of two state-led groups working on developing a “next generation” standardized test. The other is the 25-state Smarter Balanced Assessment consortium.

MCAS English and math tests are taken in grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 10. MCAS science tests are taken in grades 9 and 10. PARCC is designed to be given to students in grades 3 through 11.

Why do we need a new standardized test to replace MCAS?

Supporters say PARCC will provide a better measure of whether students are ready for college and careers by testing higher-level skills in English and math. The state estimates 40 percent of Massachusetts’ high school graduates need remedial courses in their first year of college. Computer-based tests are also easier to administer and yield results more quickly, according to PARCC supporters.

How does PARCC differ from MCAS?

In addition to being taken on computer, PARCC is designed to assess progress on the more rigorous Common Core standards that Massachusetts and other states adopted to help boost student achievement. PARCC aims to measure higher-level writing and problem solving skills by replacing fill-in-the-blank-style MCAS tests with essays and multi-step math problems. PARCC tests will be given more frequently, so that teachers can track student progress throughout the year. The high school math tests, for example, will be given at the end of the course, while high school English tests will be given at the end of the grade. PARCC tests will also rank students on college and career readiness, meaning they are prepared to do first-year college work at two-year or four-year colleges. Nationally, more than 750 colleges and universities are working with PARCC on these rankings, which will not be used in admissions decisions.

How will PARCC replace MCAS?

The state Board of Education is expected to vote later this fall on whether to adopt PARCC to replace MCAS exams in English and math. A timeline calls for schools to begin implementing the new exams by the 2014-2015 school year, though districts will be given the choice whether to extend that deadline to 2016. The state will continue to give MCAS tests in science for the foreseeable future.

Will there be consequences for failing for students and school districts?

The state’s accountability system for ranking schools and teachers will remain the same, with the same 1 through 5 rankings for schools, and the same consequences such as being required to develop a plan for improvement, Chester said. With the PARCC system, he said, the new tests will be part of the measurement for ranking schools and evaluating teachers and administrators.

Do students need to pass the PARCC in order to graduate from high school?

Students through the class of 2017 will still have to pass the grade 10 MCAS tests in English and math to graduate from high school. The state Department of Education has made no decisions yet on possible changes to graduation requirements for the class of 2018 and beyond.

How is PARCC funded?

A $186 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top program is supporting development of the new tests. Chester says he is working to find federal and state funds that schools can use for technology upgrades to be ready for PARCC. Supporters say the multi-state consortium will save money on test development and, once PARCC is in place, schools will save time and money now spent on administering paper tests.

Who are PARCC’s critics?

Georgia and Indiana have left PARCC and lawmakers in Florida are still debating whether to join the consortium. A small but growing “opt out” movement of parents, teachers and administrators claims standardized testing in general puts too much pressure on schools and students and does little to improve learning.

Jason Mark, a Leeds School parent and owner of Gravity Switch, a Web development company in Northampton, is among those skeptical about testing.

“Information technology jobs require problem solving, independent thought and a clear understanding of your strengths and how to maximize them — none of which are things that standardized testing teaches,” Mark said. Testing also “chases a lot of good teachers out of the job pool,” he added, “and consumes a lot of the mindshare of other teachers.”

— Barbara Solow

More information about PARCC is available online at www.parcconline.org.

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The end of MCAS? Eight local school districts are trying out a new test that could replace MCAS

Friday, September 6, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — Area public schools will give test runs to new standardized exams slated to replace the statewide MCAS in assessing student progress and ranking schools and teachers. Officials in Amherst, Belchertown, Easthampton, Granby, Hadley, Hatfield, Northampton and Westhampton schools were notified last week that their schools were among those chosen for a statewide tryout of the new Partnership for …

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