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Evanston public schools are preparing to administer new assessment tests this year to students in grades K-12, but not without some rather significant reservations.

The PARCC tests (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), which replace the Prairie State Achievement Examination (PSAE) are, according to the test’s website, “high quality, computer-based K-12 assessments in Mathematics and English Language Arts/Literacy… that measure real world skills that colleges and employers say they value – like critical thinking and problem solving.” The math portion, for example, will not be a fill-in-the-blank or “bubble test” but will have students complete problems and show their work. The tests will incorporate the Common Core Standards adopted by over 40 states which determine what students should learn at each grade level.

Illinois is one of about 12 states preparing to administer the tests this year. Originally, 22 states had signed on to use PARCC but nearly half have dropped the test due to concerns.

Pete Bavis, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, presented his assessment of PARCC at the Sept. 22 meeting of the District 202 Board of Education. Mr. Bavis elaborated on what he called, “logistical, educational, wellbeing and financial concerns” adding that these concerns are not unique to Evanston.

‘Significant Disruption’

Currently four days have been allotted to administer PARCC testing to students in junior English and Algebra classes that are composed of students in all grade levels. As such, there would be a “significant” disruption that would impact nearly all classes. Mr. Bavis also explained that there is no clear guidance from Illinois State Board of Education on administering the tests, raising concerns about staffing needs (the hiring and cost associated with bringing in substitute teachers) and whether the school will have adequate computers to facilitate testing.

“But here is the real deal,” said Mr. Bavis. The State has moved ACT testing up a month and a half to March 3. PARCC testing is to occur between ACT testing and testing for Advanced Placement (AP) classes. This means that a junior taking multiple AP classes stands to miss at least one week of instruction time (4 days for PARCC, 1 day for ACT plus AP testing time). “Testing fatigue and student wellbeing are major concerns for our juniors.” Compressing the multiple tests within a 44 school day window “has the potential to result in lower tests scores on ACT and AP exams.” ACT counts for college admission, and AP counts for college placement/credit yet PARCC is not a national standardized test and is not being used for college admissions, said Mr. Bavis, so “what is the value of PARCC beyond four days of additional testing?”

Illinois is spending $57 million on assessments this year. “The PARCC test is neither valid nor reliable as a measure. The reason is that it’s never been given to a large population. So we’re paying for a private testing company to norm their product on the backs of Illinois students and that’s a big problem,” said Mr. Bavis.

 Other Concerns

“To thoughtfully deploy standardized tests requires significant lead time,” said Mr. Bavis. ETHS submitted its calendar to ISBE in the spring and is still receiving information about the details of how to administer the PARCC exams, which is “extremely disruptive.” We need to be able to plan accommodations for special needs and English as a Second Language learners, he added.

It is also unclear what tests will be given in the future. PARCC has created tests for additional math and English courses but it’s unclear “if, when or why” schools will be giving those tests. To adequately measure growth, for example, tests should follow the continuum of math courses and math students but “we’re doing it in the reverse which makes no sense; there is no cohort.”

“Awful” Accommodations Approved

Another concern is the approved accommodations to assist special needs students in taking the tests. “One of the state- of the art accommodations” approved by the state for English language learners “is to read the directions slowly, in English, and at a higher volume. That is awful as an accommodation. It’s insulting. And it’s an approved accommodation by the state. That encapsulates my frustration.”

“The whole thing looks like a debacle, no one has talked about a benefit,” said Board member Mark Metz. “What happens if we just don’t do it; what’s the penalty?”

“The state has threatened to pull certification of all teachers in the school if (the school) does not administer the test,” said Assistant Superintendant/ETHS Principal Marcus Campbell. “So the state is pretty serious.”

“Are there any districts in support of this?” asked Board Vice President Pat Savage-Williams.

“I think it’s fair to say that none are in favor of it,” said District 202 Superintendent Eric Witherspoon.

“Here’s What We Will Do”

If we don’t get legislative intervention, we will do our best to ensure it’s a thoughtful test environment, said Mr. Bavis.

“We’re (communicating) with legislators about issues that we think, on the ground, are going to really be problematic for high schools in the State of Illinois to get any data that is going to be meaningful and helpful, while at the same time to have any continuity of instruction and avoid really a lot of interruption of instructional time,” said Dr. Witherspoon.

“It’s ultimately a legislative decision,” said Board President Gretchen Livingston. “We need to be in touch with our legislators. Veto session is in November. Issues like this one could be discussed.”