Greenfield school faces choice: MCAS or PARCC?

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GREENFIELD — Will Greenfield schools stick to the now-standard MCAS for next year — or take the road less traveled by opting into the new PARCC exam?

The Greenfield Public School Committee has until Oct. 1 to decide whether students will take the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Systems exams or move to the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers in spring 2015.

The School Committee will hold a public meeting on July 30 at 5:30 p.m. in the GCTV Studio at 393 Main St. to get input from students, parents and teachers on which test to take for next year.

In November 2013, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education endorsed a two-year “test drive” of the new PARCC, a national exam designed to test the Common Core Standards, which the state adopted in 2010. PARCC, proponents say, is meant to provide clearer signals for schools, colleges and employers about students’ readiness for the next grade, college and careers.

PARCC is intended to be the next generation of assessment standards and could replace the MCAS. On the other hand, since many schools are now judged on their progress — or lack thereof — compared with past MCAS scores, some argue that changing standards only complicates assessments.

Last school year — the first year of the test drive — more than 81,000 students across the state took a PARCC field test.

For this year, the last year of the tryout, school districts across the state have to choose which test to administer.

So far, 59 percent of school districts across the state have chosen to take the PARCC and 41 percent has stayed with the MCAS, according to the state education department.

In Franklin County, Frontier Regional School District and Union 38 schools will take the MCAS.

Ralph C. Mahar Regional High School, Pioneer Valley Regional School District and New Salem-Wendell, Leverett, Gill-Montague, Erving, Orange and Shutesbury elementary schools will take the PARCC.

Next year would essentially be a trial year.

Districts that choose to administer PARCC this spring will have their 2015 accountability levels held harmless, meaning that the district’s accountability level can only improve. It can’t decline from its 2014 level and schools won’t be penalized for lower scores on the more rigorous exam.

MCAS is given in Grades 3-8 and 10.

According to Jacqueline Reis, spokeswoman for the state education department, in high school, next spring’s field tests for PARCC will be given in Grades 3 to 8. All districts will continue to administer the three MCAS tests that students through the class of 2019 must pass in order to meet the state’s Competency Determination standard to receive a high school diploma. Additionally, all districts — regardless of their selection for grades 3 to 8 —will have the option to administer PARCC assessments to students in grades 9 and 11 in spring 2015, subject to appropriation. And students in fifth, eighth and high school will take the MCAS science exam because the PARCC tests only math and English.

The school committee is divided on which test to administer.

Newly arrived Superintendent Jordana Harper supports switching to the PARCC this year because schools will be held harmless and will have one extra year to experience the new test.

“My feeling is that by not moving forward we will not give (students) the opportunity their peers have in other districts,” Harper said. “There is a lot to be learned from the administration and logistics. I’d like the district to try it out when it doesn’t hurt the students.”

“What’s compelling about PARCC is it looks at the depth of knowledge and thinking beyond the MCAS. There’s a component that is pushing student thinking to the next level.”

Mayor William Martin also supports choosing PARCC. “If we have an opportunity to bring students and teachers into this new area for a year that doesn’t really count, I think it’s best,” Martin said.

Chairwoman Maryelen Calderwood, on the other hand, opposes switching to PARCC for next year and says she would opt her own son out if Greenfield chooses that route, despite the fact that the state doesn’t allow such parental options on any state tests.

“The hold harmless agreement (is invalid) because there’s harm. The harm is to teachers, students and schools, Calderwood said. “I think these set kids up for failure.”

Calderwood ticked off several areas she saw as disadvantages from teaching to the test to the potential technology cost if staff have to fix breakdowns.

“PARCC is being pushed by PARCC pushers,” Calderwood said. “I do not support it.”

Online option?

Another question was whether to administer the new PARCC exam online, if the district chooses that test, and which grades would take the online version.

PARCC will provide both a paper and online version of its assessments. The state is allowing districts to choose the format that best fits their profile based on technology readiness and comfort with online formats.

After talks with school principals and technology personnel, Harper recommended the third grade take the online version as a trial.

The three elementary schools each have a computer room with enough bandwidth.

“The best place to pilot is the elementary schools,” Technology Department Director Carol Holzberg said. “As I read about the exam in the state, there are glitches. If we don’t come face to face with those glitches now, when students aren’t penalized, we’d be in a position that is not good.”

School Committee member Margaret Betts suggested an older grade take the online version.

“I keep thinking of 9-year-olds taking their first tests on the computer,” Betts said. “I know third-graders that throw up the morning of MCAS because they know how important it is for everyone. Having them do it on the computer seems worse; just because the third-graders are the only ones in their own building doesn’t seem right.”

Holzberg responded that students have experience with online testing and are familiar with the technology. She said curriculum could be improved to teach students to type faster and learn the appropriate keys in time for the exam.

Last spring, as part of the first test drive, 41,000 students tested online and 17,000 tested with pencil and paper.

According to the state, the majority of students expressed a preference for the online tests, about 74 percent for the English exam and 56 percent for the math. Significantly, 81 percent of students had never taken a computer-based test before.

About 87 percent of students taking the English portion found it easy to type answers and 58 percent for math also found typing easy.

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