Don’t park the PARCC exam

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In districts across the country, the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment for Readiness for College and Careers) is the new standardized assessment that will be used to measure student learning and growth under the Common Core standards. This spring, teachers, parents and, most importantly, students in Chicago will be able to do something amazing: They have the opportunity to pilot the PARCC and, in doing so, enter unchartered territory without the fear of failure.  

These are the kinds of opportunities that teachers hope for, but that come along very rarely.  While standardized assessments seem to be always preceded by phrases such as “high stakes,” meaning tests that are used to make important accountability decisions (for students, teachers, schools and districts), this year students in Chicago will be able to test-drive the PARCC with no strings attached.  So, we ask…  Why park the PARCC when we can pilot the PARCC?

There is no doubt that a great deal of hesitation and skepticism surrounds the roll-out of the PARCC. Concerns range from the difficulty and rigor of the new assessment to the technical and bandwidth capacities of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and individual schools within the district.  These concerns will not go away by postponing the test for another year.  Piloting the PARCC now provides us with the opportunity to address issues head on and find solutions.

Teachers from all over Chicago recently got the chance to assess the new assessment at a “Testing the Test” event organized by Teach Plus. Teachers there spoke about the importance of getting this assessment in front of their students sooner rather than later.  When asked what was most frightening about giving the test, first-grade teacher Katherine Kerivan said, “The unknown.  It’s like a fog we try to prepare for, but do not know if we are prepared for until it is upon us.”

“We should definitely pilot the PARCC,” Kerivan went on to say. “Taking the test is an experience to gain clarity and confidence for both students and teachers.  And if it is not punitive during the pilot year, why wouldn’t we give it a try?”  

Working through the kinks, raising standards

Change that involves technology can be difficult.  By piloting the PARCC, teachers, school staff, and district officials have the opportunity to work through technology kinks, bandwidth issues, and other technical challenges that schools and CPS may face.  What’s more, Chicago’s students will gain invaluable experience using electronic assessment tools.  Instead of students feeling anxiety and apprehension about a new assessment, they will have a practice year to learn new skills that will help them reach higher levels of success in the future.  

Parents, teachers, and community members have expressed concerns about excessive testing, the time that assessments take, and the stress that this test puts on students and teachers alike. With the focus on producing high scores for students, teachers and schools, many teachers are left to “teach to the test.” We acknowledge this and agree that teachers should not have to teach to a test. However, standardized testing is a federal requirement and a constant in our education landscape. Teachers in Chicago are fortunate that they don’t have to worry about “teaching to the test” since the PARCC is accountability-free this year.  Additionally, students in Chicago previously took the Illinois State Achievement Test (ISAT), which the PARCC will replace, so no additional testing time has been added.  

And unlike the ISAT, PARCC will provide student performance feedback much quicker so that teachers and school leaders can identify both areas of strengths and areas where improvement is needed, making the PARCC more useful than previous standardized tests.

Most importantly, the PARCC assessment raises expectations for what students can and should be able to do. The tasks are challenging, complex, and at times leave teachers feeling uncomfortable. This does not mean that we should shy away.  Instead, we should welcome the push into a new era where students learn to think critically and complete complex tasks that require more from them.  Our students are capable and will rise to our expectations.

Let’s seize this opportunity to pilot the PARCC in a low-stakes environment.  By doing so, we can work out any implementation issues prior to PARCC being utilized in our district and schools.  As educators, it is our job to empower students to become the best learners that they can be.  This means preparing them to successfully complete challenging, complex, and at times frightening tasks, and to provide them with the right support to ensure that they succeed.   By piloting the PARCC now, we can empower our students to be successful when it counts and the test moves to a ‘high-stakes’ assessment in 2016.

This op-ed was written by Teach Plus policy fellows Eu Choi, Sherisse Lucas, Paige Nilson, Krista Rajanen and Lindsey Siemens. Teach Plus offers fellowships that provide classroom teachers with training on advocating for policies that will provide better education for students and help retain teachers in the profession.