The freshman and junior classes spent the last week taking a battery of new standardized tests referred to as the PARCC exams. PARCC is an acronym for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, which is a consortium of 13 states of which Massachusetts is a prominent member. The tests assessed both English and Math knowledge in a way previously not seen by most students. In a departure from the MCAS, the Math exams focus on content from a specific course such as Geometry or Algebra (as opposed to testing everything learned in grade 10). Keeping with the structure of the MCAS, the English portion of the exam will be grade- specific (for example, a 9th grade section and 10th grade section).
A small pilot involving two sophomore English classes took a version of this exam last year. This year, juniors had to take the exam instead. Sophomores were exempt because the MCAS is still the graduation requirement for their class. As a matter of fact, the current MCAS exams taken in high school “will continue to be a graduation requirement through the class of 2019,” according to Mrs. St. Ives, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction for the district. While administering the exam to grades 9 and 11 is “still voluntary,” it is highly encouraged by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to do so.
While the tests may be new to students, it’s important to realize that many classes here at HHS have been recently reworked and realigned to the new Common Core standards, which PARCC is designed to assess. According to St. Ives, “any changes in classes would have more to do with pacing than content.” That’s the reason why it is so important for students here and across the state to participate in these pilot exams, even if they don’t technically count. Just like when the MCAS was first introduced years ago, the pilot exams help the state refine the test and schools adjust their teaching.
Many freshmen were not happy about having to take these exams and were quite vocal in their disapproval when I spoke them. Cam McAuley (better known in his role as Frederick in The Sound of Music) summed up the opinions of many I talked by simply saying, “I did not enjoy taking this test. Not at all.” The math section of the exam took some major heat with Caroline Cleary describing it as being “stupidly difficult” and Ava Whitney complaining that “some of the math questions we weren’t taught how to do.” The English section of the PARCC fared slightly better, with Cleary saying the “English essays were better than MCAS” and Whitney admitting that she enjoyedthe narrative essay. The narrative essay is a section not seen on the MCAS exam.
I also spoke to some juniors who had plenty to say about the experience of taking PARCC. Dante Nicotera told me that he was philosophically opposed to the exam and that he originally wanted to opt out of taking the exam citing concerns about missing class in the month before AP Exams. Late March and the month of April are considered hallowed time in the eyes of most AP teachers and to miss class at that point often results in a torrent of makeup work. Andrea Bilton took a slightly more optimistic view. While she “hated being required to take a test that doesn’t officially count for anything,” she said “I think future high schoolers would definitely benefit from taking the PARCC instead of MCAS.” The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary education agrees with Bilton’s assessment because Mrs. St. Ives told me the PARCC is “designed to build on the strengths of MCAS and add additional features such as innovative technology-based items and more open-ended, performance based tasks.”
The PARCC exams have also only just begun for the year. Freshmen and juniors will both have to take them again on May 14 and May 15. These exams will be end of year exams in both English and Math. In future years, the eventual statewide goal is for students to take these exams online using a secure computer program. When districts make that transition depends “on their technology readiness with both hardware and software,” according to St. Ives. For Hanover, it is not known at this point in time when that will be.