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Local concerns about test assessments dominate education conversation

Value of new PARCC tests up in the air until results are returned

As the Gunnison School District administers the first round of the latest state-mandated assessments, members of the community continue to express their concerns about the test’s ability to benefit individual students.



At a meeting with State Representative Millie Hamner on Saturday, March 7, the Crested Butte Community School site accountability committee sought an explanation for the dramatic increase in standardized testing over the past year. One of the concerns was that the assessments do a disservice to students by cutting into time that would otherwise be devoted to classroom instruction.
“We already have one of the shortest school calendars and now we are losing more valuable instruction time,” committee member Ian Billick said. “In some instances, this time is completely wasted.”
Billick echoes the frustrations of a substantial group of individuals who believe the amount of testing minutes has gone too far. Elementary students, for example, are required to take up to 885 minutes of the state-mandated PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) test, depending on their grade level, a notable increase from the 660 minutes required in 2009-2010.
Crested Butte Elementary School principal Sally Hensley said that while she believed assessments are a viable way of keeping schools and teachers in check, no single data point should be used to completely analyze an institution’s success.
“I’m not going to say I don’t believe in assessments, because I do,” Hensley said. “I also believe in school accountability, but I think we can establish accountability in a much more efficient, less disruptive way.”
Perhaps the biggest grievance among community members is that the test appears to have the dual purpose of assessing individual students and schools as a whole. In doing so, Hensley says, the state is juggling too many objectives.
“I think one of the major concerns of our accountability committee is that the assessment is fragmented in what it is supposed to be doing,” Hensley said. “If the state could be really crystal clear with us about what the purpose of these tests is, then I think we could all come up with a system that provides more accurate data,” Hensley said.
Slow result turnarounds are one of the ways the PARCC test fails to address the time-sensitive needs of individual students. Unlike the district-mandated NWEA MAP (Northwest Evaluation Association Measures of Academic Progress) test, which delivers results within 24 hours, schools may not receive PARCC test results until after the beginning of the next school year, at which point the information is practically useless.
“The problem is that if you don’t get results back in a timely fashion, it’s hard to use that data in any meaningful way,” Hensley said. “When you’ve got students who are working and growing and learning every single day, teachers need immediate feedback from assessments in order to make sound instructional decisions.”
Readying schools with the technology to administer PARCC tests district-wide carried a price tag of approximately $150,000, so it makes sense that many individuals are eager to grasp the exact purpose of these assessments. Unfortunately, Billick says, Hamner skirted that question with bureaucratic finesse.
“She was unable to articulate the objectives of the test beyond general platitudes about student performance,” Billick said. “To me, that reinforced my perception that the state is spending a lot of money—and forcing the use of local tax dollars—on a tool that it is not prepared to use.”
Future district assessment coordinator Marta Smith, who will officially begin in the position next year, prefers to remain optimistic about the value of the PARCC test, which she says the district cannot fully realize until results are returned this fall. Both Hensley and Smith say that, so far, they can surmise that the test is at the very least engaging for students, as it utilizes a variety of resources such as video.
“How helpful the PARCC tests are going to be in providing information that helps us change our trajectory and think differently about our curriculum—I don’t know the answer to that yet,” Smith said. “I’m going to be a ‘glass half full’ gal and say I hope so, because this is really a lot of work to pull off.”
Only time will determine the usefulness of the PARCC test, but skepticism is still palpable among assessment critics, who believe the success of any standardized test lies in its ability to deliver instantaneous results. In the meantime, Smith, Billick and Hensley continue to advocate for more efficient methods, which, first and foremost, should aim to uphold the district’s mission of “ensuring all students are successful.”
“I am a very loud voice in the state and I will continue to be, as will our principals and superintendents,” Smith said. “We are speaking loudly. We are not just sitting here accepting our fate.”

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