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The Explainer: Demystifying the PARCC

This month, WW-P students in grades 3 to 11 will take the first phase of a new standardized exam. The PARCC test—a two-part assessment designed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a coalition of 11 states, including New York and New Jersey—has created widespread confusion among students, teachers and parents. In this edition of The Explainer, Knightly News editor David Yaffe-Bellany addresses nine key questions about the exam.

What are the origins of the PARCC exam?

The federal No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President George W. Bush in 2001, requires states to set standards for what students should know after 13 years of schooling and to administer annual tests linked to those standards. The law was intended to hold schools accountable for ensuring every student developed important skills.

But the law was imperfect. Because each state set its own standards, students in places like Mississippi, whose schools are among the weakest in the country, took far less rigorous exams than students in Massachusetts. Students who moved from one state to another had to adjust to different sets of grade-level requirements. Experts worried that this educational patchwork would put the United States at a disadvantage compared to countries in Europe and Asia, where education is more uniform.

So in 2009, a group of businesspeople, academics and state officials began developing national standards in math and language arts. The new benchmarks, called the Common Core State Standards, were completed in 2011 and quickly adopted by 44 states, with strong encouragement from the Obama administration.

The Common Core does not mandate what students should read or how their classes should be taught; rather, it lists the skills that students must acquire by the end of each school year in order to be “college- and career-ready.” For example, the Common Core stipulates that high school juniors should know how to use textual evidence to analyze an author’s stylistic choices. To measure whether students are developing the skills demanded by the Common Core, states needed new tests to replace old ones, like the NJASK and the HSPA, that were tailored to individual state standards. So the states that adopted the Common Core split into two groups—the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium—each of which designed assessments linked to the new standards. New Jersey, which belongs to PARCC, began testing students on March 1.

Does the test affect the academic careers of current high school students?

The answer is a resounding no. Current eighth-graders, the Class of 2019, will be required to pass the test during junior year in order to graduate. But until then, PARCC scores will not affect students in any way. They will not influence course placement. Colleges will not see them. And they will not determine whether students advance to the next grade.

Current high school students still have to pass a standardized test before graduation, but they can now choose from an array of options: the PSAT, the SAT or the ACT. According to Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Martin Smith, last fall about 90 percent of WW-P sophomores and juniors scored high enough on the PSAT to fulfill the graduation requirement.

Will juniors still have to take the HSPA?

No. The PARCC has replaced the HSPA.

Can WW-P students opt out of the test?

Yes. State law requires the district to schedule testing dates for every student. But parents with philosophical objections to the Common Core or the proliferation of standardized tests can opt their children out simply by sending an email to the school principal. According to Smith, students who opt out will be permitted to read quietly in the back of the testing room while their peers take the exam.

How and when will the PARCC test be administered?

The PARCC is a computerized exam that will be administered in two phases this spring. The performance-based assessment, which comprises a mixture of multiple-choice and open-ended questions, began this week. The end-of-year assessment, which consists solely of multiple-choice questions, will start at the end of April. The PARCC was divided into two parts to give exam graders more time to assess the open-ended questions.

Does the PARCC take longer than the HSPA did?

Yes. Before this year, freshmen and sophomores did not take a standardized exam—now they face up to 11 hours of state testing.

Do all high school students have to take the English section?

Yes. Every student will take the English Language Arts PARCC: Ninth graders will take the ninth-grade test, tenth-graders will take the tenth-grade version, and so on, regardless of course placement.

Do all high school students have to take the math section?

No. The math section of the PARCC assesses specific sub-disciplines, like algebra and geometry. Students who have already finished Algebra I, Algebra II and geometry—the subjects covered in the three highest-level math exams—will not take the math portion of the PARCC.

Is the PARCC going to replace the SAT as a college-entrance exam?

At the moment, there is no reason to believe it will. But David Coleman, president of the College Board, which administers the SAT, spearheaded development of the Common Core, and like the PARCC, the revamped SAT is closely aligned with the new standards.

If you have further questions, please post them in the comments section.

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