PARCC, Common Core, and Testing: Sentiments from the Floor of the Carnegie Summit

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Back in the summer of 2014, EdSurge took to the floors of the annual ISTE conference to ask educators: “How do you really feel about Common Core? Do you hate it?” The results were mixed. While the standards were perceived as changing instruction for the better overall, not a single educator EdSurge interviewed at ISTE was 100% comfortable with the relationship between Common Core and testing.

As PARCC testing of Common Core has begun in states from Ohio to Maryland, we took advantage of the March 3 Carnegie Foundation Summit on Improvement in Education to return to those questions, polling superintendents, principals, teachers and curriculum experts.

And although many administrators said they feel the initial rollouts have been going well, they acknowledge that people who are up to their eyeballs in Common Core testing--namely teachers and (to a lesser extent) parents--have palpable anxieties.

What’s Been Going Well

The best defense is a good offense

Anticipating every mishap--such as the PARCC help line going down this week in New Jersey--is impossible. But several administrators attending the Carnegie conference said they felt their teachers and students had had enough practices and prep for PARCC through ongoing pilots that they were prepared for the test.

Baltimore teacher Sarah Thomas said she felt good as the Maryland districts launched testing this week. “At our school, today was the first day of PARCC. The implementation of the test was pretty smooth, as we were well-prepared.”

“We field tested in every single school (except for seven turnaround schools), as we wanted every teacher to get core training and find kinks,” reported Dr. Lillian Lowery, Maryland State Superintendent of Schools. Lowery reports that she and her team did get some pushback from districts that did not have the proper technology requirements for PARCC throughout the past year. The state provided practice test samples -- either tech- or paper-based) throughout 2014.

Coherent messaging to educators and to families--namely that such testing is “nothing new”-- also helped support districts in states that have recently gone statewide with PARCC, administrators said.

“In the beginning, teachers weren’t too sure about PARCC, but we reminded them that they’ve all done assessments in the past anyway,” shares Michelle Pierre-Farid, Chief Academic Officer for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. “And in the case of PARCC, the test is just going to make us better and more adaptive.”

When tech fails, paper is handy

Technical gaffes have abounded since the preliminary tests last March, from connection issues, malfunctioning video players, error codes and so on. And those continue.

“It hasn’t gone perfectly, but we’ve had a lot of factors, like the weather. Additionally, NAEP is occurring at the same time, and it’s challenging when our schools have two assessments,” says Pierre-Farid of Ohio PARCC testing.

And no matter how slick computers may seem, many educators are still opting to use the paper-based assessments. For instance, Lowery reports that 11 Maryland districts are testing 100% online, 12 districts are testing 75% or more students online, and only 1 district has fewer than 25% of its students testing online online.

“As we’re moving through this bumpy, messy space,” says Eric Gordon, Cleveland MSD’s CEO, “it helps that we have the K-8 paper formats. It ensures that we can have a gradual release of tech-based testing, instead of all at once.”

Political climates and testing choices may actually help spread Common Core

Even states wavering over whether to implement either PARCC or Smarter Balanced may opt for assessments that honor the spirit--if not the letter--of Common Core curriculum.

Take Wisconsin, for example. Cassie Martin, an elementary principal in the Menomonee Falls School District, reports that while the “political battle” in Wisconsin may result in the state opting out of Smarter Balanced exams entirely, the proposed replacement statewide exams will likely strongly mimic Smarter Balanced tests and be “strongly aligned to Common Core.”

“The way we’re teaching kids with Common Core now is wonderful. They’re understanding math conceptually,” she says. “Whatever test we give them, I just want to make sure that we have the highest standards for our kids.”

“Common Core will stay as long as we have anything to do with it,” adds Cleveland’s Eric Gordon.

The Concerns and Setbacks

What will happen with test results?

And probably the rawest concern--even for those educators who have embraced the curriculum associated with Common Core--involves how people will interpret and use the test results.

“I’m more concerned about the data that comes out of this than about the test itself, and how we can use that data,” says Cleveland’s Eric Gordon.

Online and in emails to EdSurge, several teachers shared their nervousness around how people will interpret the test results, noted Baltimore City Public Schools teacher, Jenna Shaw.

“In general, public education has an unsustainable vision on how we ask students and teachers to showcase success,” Shaw says. “PARCC is just one example where teachers, schools, and students are asked to gauge their success on a metric that is unclear and, at best, still in its infancy.”

Parents’ reactions to what most expect will be lower student scores is also potentially explosive. When Cleveland released the grades of its pilot exams, few were happy. “That was when the scores went down so much that people really freaked out,” recalls Michelle Pierre-Farid.

This time around, parents aren’t waiting until all the scores come out to identify big issues. They’re pointing to those problems right now--and finding teachers who agree with them.

Teachers and parents report that the struggle for students is real

Talk to Maryland parent and instructional tech specialist Lisa Katz, and you’ll learn that PARCC hasn’t been easy for everyone, even where baseline preparation is concerned. “My kids are inundated with practice questions and seem to think the questions are ‘incredibly hard.’ My daughter Zoe had a ‘math problem of the week’ and it was confusing,” she says. “Zoe reported that it took her teacher the entire lesson to figure out how to help the students complete the problem.”

Over in the Leyden High School District 212 right outside of Chicago, IL, Assistant Superintendent Mikkel Storaasli blogs about his experiences with PARCC testing. On his list: PARCC assessments are at reading levels two grades higher than the grades being tested.

Even more alarming is Storaasli blogpost from this past Monday, March 2, where he shares concerns he’s heard from educators and parents in PARCC states including New Jersey and New Mexico. They bring up lots of worries, from frustrations over the significant loss of class time (“Some days, entire classes miss double lab periods”) to anxiety around significantly lower student performance.

PARCC testing has just begin, and Smarter Balanced testing has yet to launch. But one thing’s for sure: the positives and negatives of Common Core-aligned testing remain in a delicate balance. The next few months of performance are sure to be tense, as stakeholders watch as the scale inevitably tips more strongly in one direction.

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