On March 12, Paul Goren , superintendent of School District 65, sent a letter to Christopher Koch, superintendent of the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), listing concerns expressed by members of the community concerning the new PARCC assessment. The RoundTable published that letter in full in its March 12 issue. Dr. Koch, whose term as State Superintendent expires next week, replied in a letter dated April 2.

Below, the RoundTable includes excerpts from Dr. Koch’s letter. The text in bold is Dr. Koch’s summary of a concern discussed in Dr. Goren’s letter. Dr. Koch’s response, or excerpts of his response, follows.

Over-testing:Family members are concerned about the amount and types of tests their children must take. They see too much time spent on test preparation and not on engaging instruction. With regard to PARCC, they question why it has to be given every year from grade 3-8 and to every child.

“The Illinois State Board of Education shares your concerns related to over-testing. We believe that districts need to carefully consider the assessments in use and the types of data that these assessments are providing. We are making resources available to help districts audit their existing assessments to determine if there are duplicative efforts taking place. We are asking districts to consider how they may build balanced assessment systems. …

“We recognize that one component of any balanced assessment system is a summative assessment. The assessment of student learning is required by federal law, specifically the Elementary Education and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) (also known as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act …”

“PARCC assessments are given every year to grades 3-8 (and some high school students) and to every child because federal law requires this frequency and scope. One of the reasons for this federal requirement was that prior to such requirements certain subgroups of students, including students with disabilities, African American and Latino students and students in poverty, were not consistently included in state or local accountability systems. Indeed, one of the most important accomplishments of ESEA is that previously overlooked students are now included and data for them is publicly transparent. Ultimately, the assessment of student learning aims to close the achievement gaps among student groups, tailor instruction to meet student needs and expand opportunity for all students in America.

“… PARCC assessments are aligned to the new [Illinois Learning] standards; therefore, students are being prepared daily for the assessments. There is no need to set instructional time aside to teach to the content of the test because daily instruction aligned to the standards provides such preparation. However, since the tests are different from previous assessments and many schools are using the computer-based format, the use of some instructional time was necessary to introduce students to the new features so that their first exposure to test questions and the technology was not during the actual test itself. In subsequent years, students will become as familiar with PARCC assessments.”

The length of the test and test anxiety: Family members are particularly concerned with their children sitting for over 9 hours of testing, especially so for younger children and those with special needs. They expressed concerns about the anxiety children feel about testing in general, and PARCC specifically, especially if the test is used for high stakes for the student (student placement in classes) and/or the school.

“Testing time allotments for the first operational administration have been generously assigned to ensure that all students are provided with an environment where they feel that they have time to demonstrate what they know and still have time to review and edit their work without feeling the undue pressure of a time restraint. The allotted time exceeds the estimated time that was observed for actual completion of tasks during the field-testing. … In total, the percentage of time students will spend taking the PARCC assessments, even if they use the longest times available, will be less than .1 percent of the instructional time of this school year.

“Following the full administration of PARCC assessments this spring, testing time will be re-evaluated. If adjustments can be made while maintaining the integrity of the test, that decision will be made as a consortium.

“It is important to recognize that the tests being given are decidedly different than our state assessments of the past. The PARCC assessments require students to apply knowledge and to think critically. While there may be fewer items assessed, the items may contain multiple parts or require more in-depth answers that may take additional time to answer. The PARCC assessments also measure writing at all grade levels, a skill that was not routinely assessed previously but which we believe is vital to student success.

“The PARCC assessments are designed to mirror the activities and instruction in the classroom. The test itself should not provoke undue anxiety. However, the manner in which the test is presented to students can affect their perception of the test as being ‘high stakes.’ … It is important for adults to be aware of the emotions they [the adults] are displaying before and during standardized tests.

“It is also important that students and school personnel understand that the new assessment will allow for a measure of growth over time rather than a single measure of achievement as has been reported in the past.

“In addition, … [t]eachers and parents may begin helping students develop a growth mindset by praising hard work, effort and persistence rather than an outcome or score.”

Purpose of test: Family members are concerned about whether the test will truly be used for instructional improvement or solely for accountability purposes to judge the performance of schools and educators. On accountability, several family members suggested that the tests be given to a representative sample of students in any given building to determine school performance and growth rather than the entire student body.

“The PARCC assessments may be the only standardized assessment your child will take that was built from the ground up to align with the Illinois Learning Standards. Because the assessment requires students to apply knowledge in answering questions related to the standards, by its nature it is influencing instruction. …

“Assessment is a critical part of instruction. With the PARCC assessments, we are able to see very directly – for the first time in Illinois history – how our students compare to those in other PARCC states and against internationally-benchmarked standards. While each district will have to decide how it uses the data internally for instructional improvement, the aim is to provide the best data possible to schools and districts for these purposes.

“For purposes of accountability, federal law prohibits the use of sampling. … ISBE does not dictate the measures a school should use to evaluate teacher effectiveness. This decision is made on a local level by the individual school districts.”

Data availability: Many community members questioned why it will take so long to deliver results to families, educators and administrators. An assessment billed as helpful for all where data are not available for months leaves citizens leery.

“This year is the first full administration of the PARCC assessments and is considered a baseline year for test results. … Therefore, for this year only, scores will not be available immediately. It is estimated that scores will be returned to schools in the late fall. In subsequent years, data will be available more quickly.”

Opting-out” versus “refusing”: Family members much preferred having the ability to “opt-out” before test administration rather than having their children “refuse” every test offered to them. Family members especially think that requiring a child to refuse a test from an authority figure at their school puts undo pressure on the student, especially very young students and those with special needs.

“I agree that ‘opting out’ would be preferred to a ‘refusal,’ but it is important to note that both are problematic. Without a test score, the student, the parents and the school do not get an objective measure of how a child is performing against standards. Illinois data shows that many students who go on to college are not ready for college-level work and are required to take hours of remedial coursework at great expense. Many who start college do not finish. It has also been proven that many of our high school graduates are not ready for the workplace and are having difficulty making the transition into careers. It is important to identify students’ strengths and weaknesses early so that teachers can use that information in the classroom to help students make progress. Opt-outs and refusals may also contribute to subgroups not being assessed, such as black, Hispanic, poor and English language learner students. Federal law requiring that all students be tested is an effort to ensure that schools are in fact providing a high-quality education to all of their students, equally. …

“Finally, opting out may limit opportunities for your child.” Scores on PARCC may be used to place students directly into credit-bearing courses in Illinois community colleges.

Concerns about implementation: Citizens noted several concerns including: On a test that is admittedly harder, what will the state really do with regard to sanctions towards schools and educators?

“Failing to participate in the test can result in sanctions, but the PARCC assessments are not being administered to punish schools and educators. Participation in the PARCC assessments will simply provide a benchmark of information about how students in your school compare to others in Illinois and nationally. PARCC results will not be used for teacher evaluations, unless local administrators and union officials agree to do so. If this is the case, they cannot do so for the first couple of years since we are just establishing growth data.”

The State forcing a test on citizens: Many family members expressed concern about the state forcing a test on their children and being rather stubborn and inflexible about the concerns that they, as citizens, may have expressed.

“Testing is a vital part of the instructional process and this test is far superior to prior tests, such as the ISAT, in that it assesses critical thinking and problem solving and the application of knowledge; is comparable among many states; and allows for measure of growth over time. Knowing students’ readiness to succeed as they transition into higher education or careers can save families and institutions a great deal of money that has previously been spent on remedial coursework. We believe that we need to work collaboratively to continue to address concerns so that we can provide the best testing experience and most useful data to students, parents and schools.

“Illinois is moving away from a punitive, one-point-in-time test to multiple measures of performance on our school Report Cards that are available to the public. Our Report Card allows for surveys of students, parents and teachers and allows for customization by school personnel for information important to local communities.”

A link to the full text of Dr. Koch’s letter is provided in the online version of this article at evanstonroundtable.com.