As parents know, we have begun PARCC testing in our elementary schools and in the middle school. High School students are taking the MCAS exam, as that is still the requirement for “competency determination”, i.e., passing the MCAS exam as a graduation requirement.
Recently, some parents have expressed concerns about the new PARCC exam. These concerns include the amount of testing with PARCC, whether PARCC is age or developmentally appropriate for students, the extent of stress placed upon students in testing situations, the imposition of state or even federal requirements upon local districts, and of course, a longstanding question of the effectiveness of standardized testing as a comprehensive measure of the work being done in schools.
These concerns are not unfounded and it remains to be seen what the future will bring regarding standardized testing in Massachusetts. As I expect, everyone understands that such testing is mandated; school districts are required by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and the State of Massachusetts to administer standardized testing. MCAS, of course, has been the
“standard” since the early 2000’s. With the advent of the Common Core Standards, however, and its pointed emphasis on what are referred to as “cognitively complex skills”, also known as higher order thinking skills, states across the U.S. that have chosen to adopt those standards have implemented a test that is intended to reflect the nature of those standards (PARCC, Smarter Balanced Assessment, e.g.).
One way of viewing the PARCC exam is to see it as a means for aligning our curriculum and instruction with the state-adopted Common Core Standards. It was Stephen Covey in The Seven Traits of Highly Effective People who once wrote about “beginning with the end in mind.” What that means, educationally, is for educators to begin their deliberations about teaching with the type(s) of assessments that indicate what students should know and be able to do. Having the end in mind, the assessment, educators work “backwards” from the assessment, to a review of the Standards, then on to an alignment of our curriculum, and finally toward an ongoing understanding of how instruction will best prepare students to demonstrate that learning. It is like teaching a child to drive. We know that she/he will have to demonstrate how to do a three-point turn, parallel park, etc., so those types of maneuvers are what we teach them.
With this kind of backward design, “teaching to the test” makes sense. With the Common Core Standards, the goals have to do with sophisticated ways of thinking, of problem solving, and of analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing information (putting it all together). In this context, ‘teaching to the test” becomes a constructive strategy, not a confining restriction. And, teachers’ capacity to continually create how to teach such thinking skills is reinforced.
I am not writing, however, to either advocate for or to speak against the PARCC exam. Last spring, school districts were given the option of administering MCAS or PARCC this year. In the fall of 2015, the state Board of Education will be voting to determine whether to formally adopt PARCC. On more than one occasion, I have heard the state Commissioner of Education indicate that in the future Massachusetts will either go with PARCC or the MCAS will be revised over the course of two years into an exam that assesses the same skills as the PARCC exam. Faced with those alternatives, and with the understanding that we are mandated to administer one exam or the other, it seemed logical for the district to begin to understand what the new assessment calls for and to consider how to best address those challenges in the classroom. That is why we asked the School Committee to approve the PARCC exam last spring.
Should the public have questions about PARCC, those questions should be directed to the DESE and to our political representatives. The state Board of Education will be holding public hearings across the state between the end of the administration of PARCC and the anticipated vote in the fall. We will certainly be in a position to give our point of view once we have given the exam and will do so. Whether individuals agree with PARCC or disagree with its implementation, I encourage them to let their representatives know, and to let the state Board of Education know as well.
As always, I thank parents, teachers, and staff for their advocacy of our children’s best interests and well-being. We certainly share those concerns.
For more on PARCC go to Superintendent’s Corner, Episode S3EP3.