The rollout of a new national standardized test has generated anxiety among some West Windsor-Plainsboro language arts teachers, despite assurances from district administrators that students will perform well on the exam.
The introduction of the PARCC—a computerized test written by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a coalition of 11 states, including New Jersey—has raised concerns in the language arts department about a lack of test-prep materials and the prospect of lost instructional time. This year’s PARCC scores will make up 10 percent of New Jersey’s AchieveNJ evaluation, a report used by districts to determine raises for teachers in grades 3 to 8. But the scores will not affect high school teacher evaluations.
Concerns about test preparation
Of seven district math and language arts teachers interviewed for this story, four said they are aware of concerns that administrators have ignored requests for PARCC manuals and training opportunities, though only one teacher said she shares them.
“The teachers have asked for some training and some resources that were not provided,” North language arts teacher Denise O’Hare said. “On our own, we’ve individually bought PARCC books that have practice tests and just give an overview of the test.”
One WW-P teacher, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of professional repercussions, said that when teachers point out problems with the district’s preparation for the PARCC, administrators act as if “the teachers don’t know anything.”
WW-P officials say the district’s teachers are fully equipped to prepare students for the challenging questions expected to appear on the exam. On October 23, the district held a professional development day during which teachers visited the PARCC website to take practice tests and read about the exam’s content.
And in December, Cathy Reilly, the district’s language arts supervisor for grades 6-12, purchased three PARCC manuals for her department. But two WW-P teachers interviewed for this article said the books, which cost about $15, arrived too late to spare teachers the expense of buying their own. “By then, at least four teachers had the same ones,” said a district language arts teacher, who also asked to remain anonymous. Reilly said teachers can be reimbursed for up to $50 spent on instructional materials.
“Some teachers were super-stressed, and they wanted a manual, and they wanted a binder and that kind of thing,” Reilly said. “The best resource is really the website. Everything you could want and more is on that website. That’s really the best way for them to learn.”
Martin Smith, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said he expects students to do well on the PARCC, because WW-P offers a first-rate education.
“We’re not a test-prep factory,” Smith said. “We believe that if we stay true to preparing students to do well, with what we believe is high-quality instruction and learning opportunities, the tests will take care of themselves.”
Nevertheless, to assuage teachers’ fears, Reilly invited Dennis Fare, the author of a popular PARCC manual, to speak at the October professional development day. But Fare was heavily booked, and the plan fell apart. “That was really disappointing,” the district language arts teacher said. “This guy could have given us some information. We would’ve liked to hear just what he had to say.”
Last fall, Reilly and Smith heard Fare speak at an event organized by the Foundation for Educational Administration, a New Jersey-based group that holds conferences on education issues, and they relayed his main talking points to the teachers. “They were kind of excited about him. I get that there was some disappointment,” Reilly said. “But I think we did the next best thing.”
District math teachers’ feelings about the PARCC remain unclear. Of the 12 teachers contacted for this article, six declined to comment and five did not respond. WW-P Math Supervisor Andrea Bean said she did not purchase any PARCC manuals for her department. “We’re not all about preparing for the PARCC,” she said.
“The majority of our student body shouldn’t have to worry about the PARCC,” said North math teacher Ardie Allen, who did not express anxiety about a lack of resources. “We cover the content pretty well.”
The district does not know how PARCC scores will eventually be used to evaluate teacher performance. But Reilly said teachers feel anxious about the new exam, because they want to see students succeed, even though this year’s scores will not affect student placement. “Teachers are very conscientious,” she said. “They really want to do what’s best for kids.”
Not every teacher expressed doubts about the district’s preparation. North language arts teacher Donna Clovis said she believes her students will score well. O’Hare said the content of the exam should not pose much of a challenge to WW-P students, who get plenty of practice analyzing texts and writing essays under time pressure. And North language arts teacher Lorraine Sieben said she was not worried about scarce training opportunities.
Lost instructional time
PARCC skeptics argue that the two-part exam has consumed valuable hours of instructional time, forcing teachers to sacrifice important material. Sieben said she has sped up some of her lessons to make up for the lost class periods. “You just have to go with the flow,” she said.
At the end of February, North students in grades 9 to 11 were pulled out of their language arts classes for a one-hour training period intended to familiarize them with the computerized format of the PARCC. Clovis said the instructional time lost to practice sessions compounded her concerns about getting through the required curriculum. “It puts a little panic in me,” she said. At South, students completed PARCC training during study hall.
North Vice Principal Peter James said that although he understands teachers’ complaints, the logistics of gathering students during study hall were prohibitively complex. James added that he has taken steps to limit disruption, scheduling teachers to proctor on days when most of their students are taking the exam. Still, he said, “Nothing is clean.”
Adopting the Common Core
In 2010, the New Jersey Board of Education adopted the Common Core State Standards, a set of educational benchmarks designed to promote academic rigor and prepare students for college. The PARCC test assesses students’ mastery of the Common Core standards.
WW-P administrators have adjusted the district’s curriculum and assignments to align with the Common Core. Reilly said the language arts department has focused on teaching students to cite textual evidence in their arguments, creating “PARCC-y” activities that require comparing multiple texts.
Last summer, the language arts department used the Common Core to construct a new course, LA III, for high school juniors. “We really took it to that next level of not just aligning the standards, but actually building our curriculum around the standards,” Reilly said. The department expects to finish work this summer on another high school course, LA IV, designed for high schools seniors.
Bean said the math department has also built the Common Core standards into its academic program, adding a unit on statistics to the Algebra II course. “We’ve talked about the spirit of the Common Core, how our skills fit in it, making those connections across the chapters in the math book,” she said.
“The work is ultimately never done, because the standards are simply a lens through which to examine the work,” Smith added. “Even though we’ve done a lot of work, I don’t think we ever see that as an end point.”