Field-Testing of Common-Core Exams Gets Off to Shaky Start at Md. High School

By Liana Loewus — April 03, 2014 5 min read
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Rockville, Md.

At Thomas S. Wootton High School, teachers and administrators seem to be in agreement that field-testing for the common-core assessments is off to a bumpy start.

I spent the morning of April 2 in a computer lab at the school with 9th graders who were randomly assigned to take the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, tests in English/language arts. This was the group’s second attempt at completing the computer-based tests, which are aligned to the Common Core State Standards.

Last week, students at the school encountered technical difficulties—software systems that “weren’t jiving,” said Joseph Du Boyce, an assistant principal at Wootton High School—and eventually were sent back to their regular classrooms without taking the exam.

The school was originally slotted to administer the tests over five days, but because the Montgomery County, Md., district has had 10 snow days this academic year, school officials chose to condense the testing window. About 90 students will take the field tests over two nearly-full school days, this week and in May.

Both PARCC and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium have been field-testing their assessments this spring. By early June, when the process is complete, more than 4 million students in 36 states and the District of Columbia will have taken near-final versions of the tests in mathematics and English/language arts. As my colleague Catherine Gewertz explained in a recent Education Week story, this spring’s field-testing is a critical part of the assessments’ design process, aimed at figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

On the day I visited Wootton High, Mr. Du Boyce began by walking students through a Java update intended to help prevent software problems. He repeatedly urged the students to “be patient"—though his own actions revealed some edginess. He circled the lab with purpose and breezed through the instructions, which he later told me were “very unclear” and “poorly written.”

“Let’s pray this works,” he said to students as they clicked the sign-in box on their computer screens.

The students, for their part, were both quiet and relaxed. Wootton, ranked among the state’s top-five high schools by U.S. News and World Report, is known for churning out high Advanced Placement scores and graduates who end up at top-tier universities. Less than 5 percent of the 2,300 students there receive subsidized meals (a common indicator of poverty). Mr. Du Boyce told me the students were well aware that the field tests did not carry high stakes—in fact, he’d told them not to worry about their performance to relieve the anxiety that accompanies most testing days at the school.

As the students began the PARCC test, Mr. Du Boyce was rushed out of the room to address a technical problem in another computer lab. A few minutes later, the two remaining proctors realized that none of the students had headphones, which were supposed to have been distributed before the test began. A couple of students raised their hands when they reached items that required them to listen to a reading—though some did not and plowed on. About 10 minutes after testing had begun, a staff member entered with the headphones PARCC had provided. The proctors couldn’t help but laugh as they picked apart the mess of tangled cords.

‘We’ve Been Learning’

David Connerty-Martin, a spokesman for PARCC, said the point of the field-testing is to discover problems.

“This is what’s supposed to happen. This is so when we do the operational test next year in the spring of 2015 that we don’t have these kinds of issues,” he said. “If the instructions need to be rewritten in part, we’ll do that. If there are pieces of software that need to be disabled in order for the test to work, we’ll do that. And we’ve been learning those types of things.”

Of the 200,000 students who’ve completed PARCC tests so far as part of the trial run, the “vast majority” have done so without incident, he said. There have been technical glitches here and there, he said—some at the local level and some with the platform—but “the good news is there are no systemic issues. There have been no major outages, there’s no device that isn’t working. This is part of the process.”

For those I spoke with at Wootton High, the most frustrating part of the field-testing experience has been the amount of time it’s taken away from classroom instruction.

“These kids are going to be double-tested,” said Jennifer Martin, an English teacher there whose students were pulled out for the PARCC field-testing, referring to the fact that students still must take Maryland’s high school exams this year.

“Couldn’t you get volunteers to do this [field-testing] in the summer? We’re robbing kids of several days so that Pearson [the company that developed the delivery platform for PARCC] can benefit.” Some parents, she said, have chosen to opt their children out of the tests so they would not miss additional instructional time. (Ms. Martin has previously written blog posts for Education Week Teacher.)

She recounted that one of her students welled up with tears upon learning that she’d been selected for PARCC testing, and that it would coincide with an exam-review day for one of her classes. The administrators ended up rearranging the field-testing schedule.

“I think that our school has handled it as well as it could be handled,” said Ms. Martin.

JeanMarie Joseph, a special education teacher at the school who has taught for 28 years, said she’s seen the evolution of states tests and understands there are often “rough spots to iron out” with new assessments. However, having experienced the computer difficulties while administering the test to a student with special needs, she said, with PARCC, “I’ve been underwhelmed so far.”

The Big Picture

Mr. Connerty-Martin emphasized the need to think broadly about field-testing.

“This is an unprecedented, large-scale, multi-state collaboration,” he said. “In order to make sure the test is fair and accessible and of the quality that we all intend it to be, you need to go through the process of testing the test.”

In fact, some schools have requested to get involved, he said, to have more time to get to know the tests before they count.

“This is an opportunity for students and teachers to play a very active role in shaping the assessment that they will have to take for real next year,” he said.

We want to know: Have you been involved in field-testing of the common-core exams? How is it going so far? Post a comment below to share your story or send a Tweet to @LianaHeitin.

Chris Thompson, athletic director and history teacher, holds up a tangled nest of headsets meant for 9th graders taking the PARCC field tests at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, Md., Wednesday, April 2. Photo by Swikar Patel/Education Week

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.