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Northampton: New statewide test tryouts a hardship

In a Feb. 21 letter to the state, interim Superintendent Regina Nash requests that Northampton be allowed to withdraw from tryouts of the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) tests in English and math. PARCC tests will be given along with MCAS this year in districts participating in the tryout, but will not be scored, as MCAS tests will be.

The School Committee approved Nash’s recommendation unanimously last week.

In a phone interview Monday, Nash emphasized that Northampton’s opt-out request is not a judgment about the PARCC test, which Massachusetts is developing as part of a consortium with other states and the for-profit Pearson education company.

“This is not an issue of getting out of PARCC because of PARCC testing, but because of circumstances specific to this district,” she said.

J.C. Considine, a spokesman for state Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester, said Monday that Chester’s office had not yet received the withdrawal request from Northampton — which would be the first from any of the more than 300 districts chosen for the statewide PARCC tryout.

But, Considine added, “there really is no provision to opt out” of the field testing.

Among the reasons the district wants to opt out, Nash’s letter cites the time involved in setting up and monitoring PARCC testing in five Northampton schools and the lack of a wireless network needed for the computerized version of the test.

The online version will be given to students at Jackson Street School, Leeds School, JFK Middle School and Northampton High School. Students at Bridge Street School will take a paper version of PARCC, according to the state.

Nash’s letter also raises concerns about scheduling testing for the district’s “large number of students” with special educational needs. And, in addition to her role as interim schools chief, she notes that Northampton has two new elementary school principals, a new high school principal and a new curriculum director this year — as well as 47 new teachers.

“Needless to say, there has been a considerable learning curve for all involved,” Nash wrote.

Northampton schools are among 1,100 the state selected to participate in PARCC “field tests” in March and May. State education officials want to use evidence from the test tryouts — which will involve 81,000 students in grades 3-11 — to help them decide whether to adopt PARCC in place of MCAS tests in English and math by 2016.

A two-year transition to PARCC will allow “a robust comparison of MCAS and PARCC,” according to a Feb. 14 memo from Chester to the state Board of Education. Even if the state adopts PARCC, MCAS tests will continue to be given in science.

Considine said the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education views this spring’s test run of PARCC as offering “a lot of positives” for school districts, including the chance for students to experience the new exams “in a low stakes environment,” since those scores will not be recorded.

Considine said the tryout also “helps us learn important lessons” about the PARCC test, which is designed to be taken online, with questions aimed at capturing more rigorous “college and career-ready” skills.

In her letter, Nash acknowledges those were the reasons she initially accepted the state’s invitation for Northampton to be part of the test tryout.

But, she added, “I admit to having made a mistake. Being new to the district as an interim superintendent, I truly did not understand the amount of work that is needed to be done by administrators and teachers” in preparation for the tryout.

In Monday’s interview, Nash said Northampton’s technology director, special education director and building principals have spent numerous hours preparing for the PARCC tests, including attending all-day training sessions.

“We cannot do this within the parameters given to us,” she said. “We are looking to see what relief the state can grant.”

Leaders of other local school districts participating in PARCC testing also described test preparations as a burden, though none was seeking to opt out of next month’s tryout.

“Our schools will not withdraw, but we are not pleased with the amount of resources we are having to direct toward this,” said Craig Jurgensen, superintendent of the Hampshire Regional schools, in an email message to the Gazette. In his district, students at Westhampton Elementary and Hampshire Regional High School will take a paper version of the PARCC tests in English and math.

Jurgensen said the time commitment and “set-up requirements” for the tryout were far greater than administrators had expected.

“Principals, our tech director and others have spent a lot of time entering data relative to the students who will be tested, confirming schedules, testing sessions, etc.” he said. “The time and tasks were not clearly communicated up front.”

Michael Morris, director of evaluation and assessment for the Amherst public schools, said his district already has wireless Internet access in all of its schools, which will make administering the computerized version of PARCC easier. Students at Fort River Elementary and Amherst Regional Middle School will take the online version, while those at Crocker Farm, Wildwood Elementary and Amherst Regional High School will take a paper version, according to the state.

Still, Morris said, on top of other initiatives the schools are shouldering, preparing for the PARCC tests has been a challenge. “The amount of time it takes of administrators and people in the central office is pretty extreme,” he said.

In a letter going out to parents about the PARCC tryout this week, Morris said he will attempt to reassure them about the coming field tests, including a schedule he said will not overburden students also taking MCAS tests.

“We are going to approach this in a lowest-stakes way,” Morris said. “We are trying to get a sense of whether this is a good test. But we don’t want kids stressing about it.”

Other Hampshire County school districts participating in the PARCC tryouts are Belchertown, Easthampton, Granby, Hadley, Hatfield, Smith Vocational and Agricultural School, Hilltown Community Cooperative Charter School, Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School and Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School.

An update on the PARCC tryouts is on the agenda for Tuesday’s state Board of Education meeting in Malden. The state is also planning a series of community meetings about the tests in communities across Massachusetts next month, including a session March 20 at Holyoke High School. A detailed schedule is available online at: www.doe.mass.edu/parcc.

The Gazette’s primer on the PARCC test is available online at http://www.gazettenet.com/home/8428425-95/qa-a-primer-on-the-new-parcc-exams

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