How three different districts fared as they conducted PARCC testing for the first time
When teachers, students, and administrators at Sheridan School District No. 2 met earlier this month to kick off The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) testing, they had felt pretty sure of themselves. After all, the Denver-based district of 1,600 students and five schools had worked hard to prep itself for the computer-based K–12 assessments in English language arts and math. “We spent a lot of time and money on preparation,” says Superintendent Michael Clough.
But it all fell apart pretty quickly.
Within just a few hours of the first test being administered, it became clear that the district wasn’t as ready as it thought it was. “The first day of testing can be described as nothing short of a disaster,” says Clough. “Now that the first round of testing is complete, we’ll have to start unpacking things and figure out exactly what went wrong.”
Clough says the district ran into some repeated complications with firewalls, pop-up windows, and pop-up blockers—all of which may have contributed to students’ inability to even log into the testing system (let alone actually use it within the designated time frame). “Once students were able to log in, the problems waned—but getting into the system was a challenge in and of itself,” Clough recalls.
Next page: How Pearson responded
In some cases, high school students took up to three hours to log in, with just 10 percent of pupils actually able to get logged in within a few minutes or less. “By the two hour mark on the first day, about half of our students were logged in and doing their tests.”
The issues that Sheridan SD was grappling with were so big that Pearson, the official testing vendor, sent out a tech support professional to help—a move that Clough is thankful for. “I definitely give them credit for that,” he says, “along with my own tech team, which basically had to touch every computer in the district twice the following morning, before students were ready to test.” He says frustrations were especially high because the district’s IT team did a run-through of the system on the Friday before testing with zero problems. “By Monday morning, the kids couldn’t log in.”
With more PARCC testing in Sheridan SD’s future, Clough says the district will be assessing its computer firewalls and determining (with the help of its security system provider) exactly what needs to be done to mitigate the problems that surfaced. “We also need a backup plan for when students aren’t able to log on quickly,” says Clough, “and possibly a bigger investment in computers in order to accommodate more students and the delicate PARCC testing schedule.”
Do Your Homework in Advance
PARCC testing was a mixed bag at North Hunterdon High School in Annandale, N.J., where about 1,750 students were tested over a two week period that was extended due to weather delays and closures. Principal Richard Bergacs says the first day of testing was “a little hectic” as students and teachers adapted to the new procedures and processes. A few issues with the school’s WI-FI and bandwidth also came into play early on, he says, but were cleared up fairly quickly. “Once we fixed the wireless issues, the teachers and students felt more comfortable,” says Bergacs.
To ensure the smoothest possible PARCC testing experience, Bergacs says the school strategically positioned six IT support personnel in specific “zones” on campus. When an issue or question arose, teachers were able to get them solved quickly. Bergacs says that support structure was particularly useful on day one of testing. By week two, he says “the IT support pros were just sitting out in the hallways, not doing much.”
Next page: Test prep pays off
Hindsight being 20/20, Bergacs says the next wave of PARCC testing will probably find North Hunterdon HS using a different approach to the testing windows themselves. Unlike New Jersey’s High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA), which requires testing take place on specific days, PARCC allows for multiple test sessions throughout the day. “We could do an AM session and a PM session and rotate students through,” says Bergacs, “so that it doesn’t impact as much class time.”
To schools and districts that struggled with their own PARCC challenges in March, Bergacs says it’s important to try everything out and test as much as you can before the actual examination period. “Be as prepared as possible for the technical issues that arise,” he says, “and don’t wait until day one to find out what happens.”
Heading off the Challenges
With more than 40,000 students spread throughout 55 buildings, Aurora Public Schools in Aurora, CO, was able to administer PARCC tests to all of its students within the allotted test window and with the devices that it owns. “For us, that is one indicator of success,” says Lisa Escarcega, chief accountability and research officer.
She says the district did have to deal with some mis-administrations (i.e., tests that were not given in a standardized format according to the stated methods in the procedure manual and are therefore invalid), but notes that those issues were not related to technology. “They had more to do with the rollout of the assessment package itself,” says Escarcega. “The accommodations manual that we used for training came in very late and wasn’t clear in a few areas. Of course, this is not atypical for a first-time administration.”
Working with Chief Information Officer Steve Clagg, Escarcega and her team dedicated much time and effort to the district’s assessment administration process. “Our IT staff came off other projects to have a presence here at the schools for the first couple of days,” she says. “That really limited the number of technology glitches that we might have encountered.” By the second week of testing, Escarcega says the district was experiencing very few—if any—issues with the testing process.
Going forward, Escarcega says she’d like to see a joint effort evolve on the part of the schools and districts that are involved with PARCC. By sharing best practices around top strategies for high school versus middle school, an optimal number of devices for a certain student population, and other key points, she feels districts could be more prepared for the next go-round. “Talking together about the best practices would be extremely useful.”
Bridget McCrea is a contributing writer for eSchool News.
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