PARCC will work

Implementing the new test will be hard, but worth it

AT THE City on a Hill Charter School in Roxbury, where I teach high school math, 91 percent of students are designated as high needs.  Before my students returned for the 2014-2015 school year, my colleagues and I sat down to complete the recently-released Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam in our subject areas.  I took the 35-question algebra I test on my MacBook Air.  I was allotted 50 minutes for this exercise.  As I worked diligently through the problems, I thought to myself that there is no way my students can do well on this test. Yet.

This month, students in Massachusetts schools began taking the PARCC exam, a new, Common Core-aligned assessment that might replace MCAS. The Common Core standards detail what students in grades K-12 should know by the end of each grade.  The standards do not dictate how a teacher chooses to teach.  Instead, they ensure that teachers in different states teach the same concepts in the same year.  The Common Core standards emphasize the concepts and skills students need to be successful in the 21st century against peers in the United States and abroad.

The computer-based PARCC exam aligns with the Common Core standards.  It was clear to me from looking at early sample PARCC questions that they are more challenging than MCAS.  PARCC questions are not the simple multiple-choice questions that are part of a paper and pencil exam like MCAS.  For example, a student might have to “drag and drop” her answer choices into a table to show that she gets exponential functions.  These more challenging questions require students to exhibit a deeper understanding of concepts.  While this may lead to low test scores for students, a little failure might be just the right catalyst to raise our expectations of ourselves as teachers and our students as learners.

To illustrate, let me share a story of a boy I’ll call Rondo.  A quiet, respectful 9th grader with a big smile he would not share in my math class, Rondo came to my school in September 2013.  Math is Rondo’s weakest subject so he wanted to fly below the radar and hope that everything would work out for the best.

For the first half of the year he struggled to find common denominators and couldn’t seem to remember his math facts to add, subtract, multiply, or divide correctly. He averaged 30 percent on every test or quiz from September through December despite doing his homework every night. Rondo was failing my tests and my class. But failing is learning. I began to tell Rondo, “you can do this,” and encouraged him to stay after school and take advantage of retaking his tests and quizzes.

Rondo worked with a math special education teacher and studied hard for tests and quizzes. By midterms, he had earned a 60 percent. By final exams, his growth was staggering — up to an 86 percent. His success continues in my class today. Rondo earned an 88 percent on his algebra I midterm in January, which was 15 percent above the class average. I am now greeted daily by his beautiful smile.

I raised the expectations for Rondo and he rose to the challenge. He is not unique. The idea of raising expectations works in all walks of life. Earlier this month, Gov. Charlie Baker directed the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to conduct a series of hearings on PARCC and the Common Core.  My message to Gov. Baker and the board is this:  Like my work with Rondo, raising expectations will work with the PARCC assessment.

I realize there are many challenges that the PARCC exams pose. Since PARCC is a computer-based test, there are questions that require the use of an equation editor tool.  Considering that some of my students do not have a computer at home, using an equation editor will not be easy. That is okay with me. I look at it as an opportunity to broaden my teaching repertoire and help students learn more about how technology can help them in every subject.

The biggest challenge I foresee is the fear from teachers and administrators that low PARCC scores in the first few years will result in widespread state designation of schools as Level 5, or failing, and mass firings of teachers. I do not believe this is the case. The state has already demonstrated a commitment to ensuring that schools that choose PARRC will not be penalized under its one-year “hold harmless” policy — and it is widely recognized that test scores will reflect growing pains in the first few years.

The Common Core standards and PARCC are raising the expectations for both students and teachers. I believe wholeheartedly that my students and I will rise to meet this challenge. And if we don’t, failing is learning.

Meet the Author
The adoption of the Common Core State Standards in Massachusetts was a good idea.  Finding the test that accurately assesses the standards is both nerve-wracking and essential. As a teacher, I am willing and eager to do what is best for my students.  Raise the bar and we will rise to the challenge.

Karen Levin is the lead math teacher at City on a Hill Charter School in Roxbury. She currently teaches 9th grade pre-algebra and 9th grade algebra. She is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum.