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Education Mon Apr 27 2015

PARCC Exam Raises Concerns

themash.comBy Julia Huebner and Alex Rothschild

Last month, thousands of students across Illinois took or opted out of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC exam. The test is a state assessment aligned with the controversial Common Core curriculum. Although students are spending hours on the exam, parents and educators are the ones speaking up about it. There's no standard opinion about the PARCC exam.

Supporters of the PARCC argue that it reflects classroom learning better than the Illinois Standard Achievement Test or Prairie State Achievement Examination, both of which were replaced by the PARCC. According to the Illinois Board of Education, the PARCC is "an assessment that requires students to analyze information--and explain their answers--[that] better reflects classroom lessons and experiences."

Third- through eighth-graders take a traditional paper and pencil test, while high school students take an electronic version. In a statement defending the PARCC, Chicago Public Schools' chief accountability officer John Barker said, "Rather than simply filling in bubbles, students will demonstrate their knowledge and skills by tackling realistic, complex questions and explaining how they reached their answers."

Initially, CPS planned to pilot the test by administering it to just 10 percent of schools. But when threatened by the Illinois State Board of Education and U.S. Department of Education with $1.4 billion in budget cuts, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett changed course, admitting that CPS couldn't "risk the devastating financial cuts."

Although CPS schools were required to administer the exam, students across the state could opt out of taking it. According to Walter Payton College Prep High School Principal Tim Devine, 13 percent of the school's students eligible for the PARCC opted out, including freshman Bibiana Torres.

"I didn't receive any information [about opting out]," Torres said. "I didn't even know that we could opt out until a couple days before."

Torres said that when she informed her proctor of her decision to opt out on test day, the teacher seemed surprised.

"I'm pretty sure the teacher was uninformed also that we could opt out," she said.

Walter Payton freshman Trinity Kim also reported confusion on the process surrounding the test. She said she wasn't aware of the ability to opt out until the morning of the exam, at which point she decided to take it.

Administration of the PARCC raises the question of the effectiveness of increased standardized testing. Opponents of over testing argue that time spent testing, as well as time spent preparing for the test, does more harm than good.

Furthermore, some suggest that testing drains a student's intrinsic motivation for learning. On March 25, LaSalle Language Academy Principal Elisabeth Heurtefeu announced she would be leaving her position, citing over-testing as her reason for departure.

"I'm not against accountability," Heurtefeu said in an interview with DNAinfo Chicago. "I think it's needed, but the way to measure it is nuanced."

Disapproval of over-testing in Chicago reflects a similar national sentiment. Although the PARCC assesses younger students, high school juniors across the country are sitting for in-school ACT administration. The rising importance of standardized testing has invited countless strategies to "game the test," including exam preparation sessions.

Some students, like Glenbrook North High School junior Hannah Gould, said they truly enjoy test prep.

"Whenever I get a question wrong, she always lets me explain the thought process to my answer and truly listens and considers it," Gould said about her ACT tutor.

But critics of test preparation argue that the high cost of meeting weekly with a tutor reserves the service -- and thus the jump in scores -- for children of higher income families. To combat this perception, many test preparation companies, including Academic Approach, offer group tutoring sessions in CPS schools at a reduced cost.

Despite vocal opposition, standardized testing, in theory, serves as an equalizer of education, ensuring that all students are learning the same material. Additionally, the tests are scored objectively by a computer to remove the bias that stems from individual teaching style and expectation.

"[The PARCC] is one of the stronger assessments of current standardized tests [that] measures student learning at a thoughtful level," said Walter Payton Vice Principal David Adamji.

As school districts incorporate new exams like the PARCC, it's clear that standardized testing isn't going anywhere soon. Students, parents and administrators alike will need to continue evaluating what best serves learning needs. Unlike standardized test questions, there's not one right answer.

This article was written by Julia Huebner of Walter Payton College Prep High School and Alex Rothschild of New Trier High School and was originally published at on Apr. 24, 2015. It is featured here as part of our new content exchange program with TheMash, the Chicago Tribune's teen edition.

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