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So Long, MCAS; Hello, PARCC: Belmont Schools To Field Test New Exam Standard

As Belmont, Commonwealth set to join multi-state testing collaborative, questions of rigor, teaching to test asked by School Committee.

It has become a well-known process for most students and parents in Belmont schools; MCAS – the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System – the spring paper-and-pencil test many students prepare for and take that determines how Belmont students are performing against state standards. 

Well, forget all that.

Beginning this spring, educators, student and parents will be getting familiar with a new acronym: PARCC. That's because Belmont and the rest of the commonwealth's school districts will be joining 17 states, the Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia in moving towards replacing state-centric tests like MCAS with the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career. 

"It's a new way of testing to determine just how our students are learning," said Janice Darias, Belmont's assistant superintendent who is handling PARCC's introduction to the district during her presentation before the Belmont School Committee Tuesday, Dec. 3.

And as a way of taking the PARCC out for a "road test" to allow the states to review the process and results, Belmont has been selected as one of the school districts that will field test the exam in the spring 2014.

Unfortunately, some of the PARCC field tests – to be taken by two randomly selected 4th grade classes at Butler Elementary, two 7th and two 8th grade classes at Chenery Middle and three 9th grade classes at Belmont High schools – will run the same week as long-scheduled MCAS. For this one year, many of the field testing students will be taking dueling standardized tests on the same day.

Darias said that parents can not exempt their child from taking the MCAS if they are also taking the PARCC test as it is providing "critical" information necessary to support individual student learning and the continuing analysis of curriculum and instruction at Belmont schools. 

Interestingly, the folks who run PARCC – created with a $186 million grant from the US Department of Education through the "Race to the Top" program – will not release the test results to Belmont educators.

"This is joust a learning experience for all of us," said Darias.

The reason for the change from MCAS to PARCC is an attempt by states to fine tune exams to better determine what student's are learning and how they use that information.

"It's trying to identify the less concrete learning to make sure that is the kind being taught in the classroom," Darias told Belmont Patch after the meeting. 

Not just the facts

"We don't want [students] just learning facts. We want students to demonstrate what they know and are able to do and PARCC does a better job determining that," said Darias.

Under the PARCC, the focus of the exam will be on grade-level or course-specific standards leading to college and career readiness. Using computers and hand-graded exams, the exam will measure performance against the state's Curriculum Framework. 

"There are a lot more parts to an answer than the MCAS test," said Darias. While a typical MCAS test uses multiple choice questions and a written response in the language section, the PARCC requires a more in-depth response with writing at its core. In a math question, PARCC would be answered using a computer, dragging answers to the correct spot on the screen. 

Darias introduced examples of PARCC questions for fourth graders which School Committee members all answered correct. 

Darias said being part of the field test will allow Belmont educators to know how students react to the new test.

"I want to know how they feel about using the test, how comfortable they were taking the exam," said Darias, using that data to help prep future students on the exam.

Under the current timeline, Belmont and other schools will test run the exam "to see how they measure up to our current test," said Darias. By the spring of 2015, school districts will then choose between using the new PARCC exam or stick with MCAS.

It will not be until the fall of 2015 until the state would adopt the new exam with full participation in the new test in the 2015-16 school year for third to eighth graders.

High School students would continue using the MCAS test until 2018 for continuity in test scores.

Assessing kindergarteners chilling

While generally viewed positively by the School Committee, there were some issues with the new emphasis on the goals of the new exam. Newly-appointed member Lisa Fiore questioned if a district can truly assess how prepared a student is for a career or college when there are so many paths to a successful future.

"People go through a lot of careers before finding one," she said. 

Fiore, who is an education professor and administrator at Lesley University, also found the optional assessment districts can choose to assess kindergarteners on  career or college readiness "sending a shiver down my spine." 

Another concern is keeping the high-level Massachusetts school districts are accustomed as part of a multi-state exam. Massachusetts is celebrating 20 years since state legislators passed a major reform law that created aggressive academic goals and installed well-designed assessments front and center in educating students.

Those high standards, along with testing and added funding from the state through the 1990s, has resulted in Massachusetts students being some of the best educated worldwide.

While the US as a whole achieved a middling rating in the international PISA exam released this week, Massachusetts students ranked fourth in reading, seventh in science and tenth in math.

But under the PARCC, Massachusetts schools will be grouped with states that have historically underachieved in education including the District of Columbia, Arkansas and Mississippi. Under the collaborative agreement, the states are committed to a kindergarten to 12th grade assessment system that builds a pathway to college or career, high-quality assessments, supports educators in the classroom, a greater use of technology and advances accountability.

But can the Bay State's high standards be introduced to long-laggard communities without witnessing a backlash from states in which a majority of students can't match Massachusetts' success?

In many states where education officials have recently introduced these tougher standards, most notably under the "Common Core" initiative, the push back has begun. According to US & World Report – which awarded Belmont High School "gold medal" status in its 2012 Best US High School issue as one of the best open enrollment schools in the country – "some critics have recently argued that the state-led Common Core effort is a Washington-led takeover of education. Other critics contend that the standards of the Common Core are too high and that they will spark even more testing in our schools. A few weeks ago, some parents in Arkansas and Louisiana [both states are part of the PARCC collabrative] even kept their children home to protest the new standards."

But Belmont School District Superintendent Dr. Thomas Kingston countered that the high educational standards set in the mid-90s by Massachusetts "did a greater service to the urban poor than anything else government has done."

Relating his tenure in the Chelsea School District – for 10 years as assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction and then seven years as superintendent – Kingston said "Belmont doesn't need a MCAS or PARCC as much as the other urban districts."

"I do believe the nation, not just Massachusetts, needs higher education standards," said Kingston. 

"The big question looking at the Common Core is are the standards even better then what Massachusetts devised in 1994," said Kingston. "So it's always good for people to be vigilant and be sure that the standards that you're setting are high and fair. And the best to know that are superintendents and teachers." 

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