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Harford, Cecil public school students dive into PARCC tests

Students in Harford County Public Schools and their counterparts across the state are in the midst of an intense spring testing cycle, as they complete the state's first year of PARCC assessment exams.

The PARCC, or Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, standardized tests are designed to replace some of the Maryland School Assessments, or MSAs, that have been used to assess student learning in Maryland for several years.

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One Bel Air Elementary School parent, whose fifth-grade daughter is taking the PARCC after having taken the MSAs in third and fourth grade, said she is still learning the details of the new testing regimen.

"It's always been Maryland State Assessments, so I'm still learning the whole PARCC thing," Kristen Donarum, of Bel Air, said as she waited to pick her daughter up Monday afternoon.

Fifth and eighth graders will still take the MSA science exam, and the HSA will be administered to biology and government students.

"The PARCC is our state assessment that's used to comply with our federal reporting and state reporting requirements," Douglas Strader, director of assessment for the Maryland State Department of Education, said Tuesday.

"There is only one state test in the areas of reading and mathematics," Strader said of PARCC. "This is it."

Jillian Lader, manager of communications for Harford County Public Schools, could not provide an interview with HCPS officials who run the testing program, saying more than a day's notice would be needed to honor such a request.

But Strader said the results of testing, which is required by the Federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, are tied to federal dollars allocated to school districts for services such as instructing children with special needs, food service and supporting schools in low-income areas.

The results are also shared with all local stakeholders, such as parents and teachers, he said.

"The intent is to make sure we are collecting information to impact the students' educational program," he said. "We don't want to miss any students."

While public school systems across the state have scrambled in the past two years to get ready for and execute the new testing requirements, private schools in Harford aren't required to administer the PARCC tests to their students and are not doing so, according to leaders at three prominent local schools.

New testing windows

Harford school officials scheduled testing for 17 days in March, from March 9 through March 31, along with 15 days between April 1 and April 30 and 19 days between May 1 and May 29.

End-of-year testing is also scheduled for June 1 through June 4.

Students will not, however, spend all day and every day taking tests this spring.

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Bill Ide, coordinator of testing for Cecil County Public Schools, said the state allows 10 days for students to take the test with pencil and paper and up to 20 days to take it online.

"Most of our schools will not need all that time, but that gives them sufficient time to make up tests for students that are absent," he said.

Ide said there are two testing windows for PARCC. The first, which lasts in Cecil County from March 16 to April 14 – minus Easter break in early April – covers the "performance-based assessment" to review student learning three quarters of the way through a course.

The second, which lasts from May 4 through June 2, is the "end of year" component that measures students' skills as a course ends.

State education officials also said the March-April testing window allows enough time to assess the written portions of the tests and then publicize the results. The more traditional multiple-choice style tests are given at the end of the year, and they can be graded much quicker.

Donarum, the Bel Air Elementary parent, said her daughter has spent "five different days" taking PARCC in two-hour segments during March.

"It seems like it's eating up more time than the MSA did last year," she said.

Donarum said she does not have a strong opinion on the PARCC.

"I guess, when push comes to shove, I'd rather see [students] learning something than taking a standardized test," she said.

College and career ready

The assessments have been tailored to the state's College and Career-Ready Standards, which are a byproduct of the Common Core State Standards that Maryland also has implemented, according to the Maryland State Department of Education website.

Critics of Common Core have said it is another means for the federal government to control what kids learn in local schools.

"The PARCC assessment is aligned to those standards, to gather evidence of learning," John White, chief of staff for the state education department, said about the relationship to the college and career-ready standards.

The PARCC exams are also more advanced than the former HSAs, in that they help school officials assess additional academic standards that were not picked up through the previous tests, and they can be taken online.

The exams are not just the traditional multiple-choice, bubble-sheet form either. Test-takers must also write short essays as part of the English section of the exams, and they must show their work when solving math problems.

Students also have a multimedia component when taking the test electronically. As an example, they watch a video on a certain subject, and then they must write an essay using information from the video.

"It's a more real-world type of experience for these students," MSDE's Strader noted.

Strader said state K-12 education officials will work with their higher education counterparts to review the results of this year's PARCC testing and develop standards for measuring proficiency. Teachers can also use the results to develop next year's curriculum.

"These are used to ascertain whether a student is on track for college and career readiness," he said.

Two years from now, PARCC tests also will be part of the graduation requirement for high school students, White said.

Private school experience

Even though they haven't implemented Common Core and PARCC testing, students at three Harford private schools aren't immune from standardized testing, their leaders say.

"We believe private control and direction is the right direction, and when we move from that to the state and federal control, that is not the direction we think is most healthy for our nation and our schools," Bryan Wilson, principal of Harford Christian School in Darlington, said of Common Core.

HCS officials are administering the standardized Stanford Achievement Test to third, fifth and eighth graders this week, however, and kindergartners, second graders and seventh graders will take the Otis-Lennon School Ability Testing exams in early May, Wilson said.

"Our primary purpose for conducting Stanford testing is just tracking our own progress," the principal said.

He said the standardized tests give school administrators "a big-picture snapshot of how we're doing."

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High school-level students at Harford Christian also take standard college entrance exams such as the SATs and ACTs.

"We are happily independent from [Common Core], and I don't want to say there's not value in testing, but testing should be a means to an end and not an end in itself," Wilson said.

Madelyn Ball, principal of The John Carroll School in Bel Air, said not having standardized tests such as the HSAs and PARCC is "a curse as well as a blessing."

"None of my teachers feel as if they have to teach to a test, but I would love to know how we would make out compared to a public school," Ball said.

Gray Smith, head of school for Harford Day School in Bel Air, said their elementary and middle school students do not take the state tests, but do take the Comprehensive Testing Program, which is administered through the nonprofit Educational Records Bureau. Harford Day serves students through eighth grade.

"We don't use any state or federally-mandated testing with our kids," Smith said.

Smith said the majority of independent schools in Maryland give such tests, known as ERB-CTP, to measure their students' progress and compare with other independent schools.

He said the tests help measure student progress and also help teachers develop the curriculum.

"The main reason is that it stifles your curriculum," Smith said when asked why private schools do not use the state's standardized tests. "The school curriculum can get pointed toward the test, which is not what an independent school is about."

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