District forced to create action plan in light of low PARCC participation rates

During the February 23 Board of Education meeting, Princeton Public Schools began enacting plans to increase the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers exam participation rates. Last year, Princeton failed to reach the 95 percent PARCC participation mandated by the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act and consequently had to create an accountability plan to address this issue. This year, the test will be administered between April 11 and May 20 to math students in Algebra I, Algebra II, or Geometry, as well as to freshmen, sophomores, and juniors in their English classes. Juniors taking the AP English Language and Composition exam on May 11 are exempt from taking the English PARCC test.

Last week, the district received reports known as “evidence statements” that will help schools modify their curriculums in the future and evaluate how effective their accountability plans have been. “Evidence statements will bring us back to the original standard so … we can look at a comparison of PARCC across the country, PARCC in New Jersey, PARCC in our district, and [see where we fall] comparatively,” said Supervisor of Curriculum Bonnie Lehet. “There were some areas where … we fell below the state … areas that I’m guessing are probably things that [weren’t moved] from one grade level to another, for example, at the elementary school.”

Some, however, don’t believe that the PARCC accurately reflects student learning. “It is completely unproven, so we don’t know if it’s accurate at any level, if it measures what it purports to measure,” said Julia Sass Rubin, a volunteer for Save our Schools NJ, an organization for parents and public education supporters that opposes high-stakes standardized testing. “You need multiple years of data.”

The low participation rate in Princeton High School was the effect of a movement of  ‘opt-outs,’ formally known as ‘refusals,’ in which students abstained from testing despite federal and state laws that did not provide parents with this option. In a 2015 issue, The Wall Street Journal quoted Superintendent of Schools Stephen Cochrane as saying that 750 out of 1,162 eligible testers in 2015 said that they were going to skip the test.

Despite the resistance to the assessment, participation is essential for the district to evaluate how its education and curriculum standards correspond to students’ performance. “For the high school … we didn’t have many students take the test, so it’s not really great data, and that’s where the participation rates help us … The more students take the test, the more we know about how [we are] doing with the curriculum,” Lehet said.

The plans of several districts statewide to raise participation have generated controversy. “[The Department of Education] distributes all this propaganda … and some districts have taken this propaganda and have really run with it, and with completely unsubstantiated claims, sometimes just bold-faced lies,” Rubin said. “For example, that if you don’t have 95 percent participation, the district will lose money. That’s just a lie, just absolutely not true.”

Although the Princeton Public Schools district has not distributed this information, some parents found the letter about PARCC sent to homes on March 10 slightly misleading. “[The letter] suggested that PARCC was a way to meet the graduation requirement, but it did not show that there are seven other ways to meet that requirement,” Rubin said.

Students can also meet the graduation requirement by taking assessments like the SAT, PSAT, and ACT.

The test is used to evaluate students’ knowledge, critical thinking skills, and problem-solving abilities. At the high school level, PARCC is used to analyze students’ preparedness for college and careers. Student scores in each of these areas are compared against state and national standards. Previously, 70 percent of freshmen at New Jersey’s county colleges had to take a course to learn information that they should have been taught in high school to be fully equipped to begin their college careers—which is evidence for the insufficiency of previous curriculum standards.  “For grades three through eight [the test is] a value just to know you’re on track … At the high school level, it’s a little bit more complicated—[it’s] about [being] college and career-ready,” Lehet said. “States across the country are taking PARCC … to see if standards were the same … if students had the same opportunities.”

Some in the district see standardized testing as deeply harmful to students and their intellectual development. “It hurts public education by narrowing the curriculum and encouraging a real focus on test preparation, and depleting resources for testing and test preparation rather than teaching, and making schools compete with each other, and reducing the incentive to foster creativity and a love of learning [while] increasing the incentive for drill-and-kill,” Rubin said.

On the other hand, some students can still see benefits to the assessment, despite some backlash with the computerized test format, in terms of assessing their own progress. “[I did take the PARCC last year] because I wanted to see how I measured against other people,” said Angelica Majorczyk ’18.

However, the reasons for high refusal rates in PHS are more nuanced, with the amount of time it took from the school day proving to be a more potent concern for students and teachers. For example, some students find scheduling school activities around testing days to be difficult, or consider the thought of another standardized test hard to stomach. “[I didn’t take the PARCC last year] because it was pretty pointless, and I had already been dealing with a lot of other standardized tests and I really didn’t want to take another one,” said Genna Garlock ’16.

To address this issue, the new PARCC’s testing time will be reduced by about 90 minutes, according to parcconline.com. “Last year, we did … different grade levels at different times which kind of extended the time that it was happening at the high school,” Lehet said. “[This time] we’re making the schedule not roll out over three weeks, but … during one week.”

Additionally, the testing windows for English, language arts, and mathematics will be consolidated so all schools can take it over the same time span, avoiding delay and inconvenience in scheduling multiple testing periods. The district plan also includes mandating all grade levels to test at the same time, so missing classes will no longer be an issue.

Technology was named as another reason for low participation, with inadequate testing computers available for mass-examination. “We’re pulling computers from across the district so we have enough,” Lehet said. Sharing technology between all the district schools will allow consolidated testing times for all grade levels at PHS to take the assessment at a single time.

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