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Online school exams tested

A test drive of an online state assessment that could replace the 17-year-old MCAS exam got underway in three dozen school districts south of Boston last month, creating an additional layer of stress for students and teachers.

State officials said the new tests, being developed by a 17-state consortium called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, will help align Massachusetts with new federal standards.

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But some advocacy groups, parents, and others see the PARCC test as another in a long line of unfunded mandates that will overwhelm already overburdened teachers and frazzled students. A state representative from the region has even filed legislation to delay the tests.

PARCC is working to create a common set of K-12 assessments in English and math. The pilot program consists of a timed, interactive English exam that requires more thinking and application of knowledge than Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams, state officials say. It also has fewer multiple-choice questions than MCAS, which is an untimed paper test.

Mitchell Chester, who is commissioner of the state’s public schools and chairs the national PARCC governing board, has said Massachusetts needs a test that better corresponds with Common Core, the new federal education standards aimed at improving students’ preparation for college, careers, and life.

Schools were randomly selected to take the test from March 24 to April 11 and May 19 to June 6, coinciding with MCAS exams, state officials said. Students are not receiving credit and will not learn their PARCC scores.

One of the participating schools was Scituate High, where 150 students took the exam from March 26 to 28. According to Superintendent of Schools John McCarthy, things generally went well.

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But some students had problems logging onto the test, he said, and others were unceremoniously bounced out when pages shut down without warning.

Teachers thought the administrative manual was confusing, McCarthy said.

“Overall, it was a little stressful, but we managed,’’ he said. “It gave us an opportunity to see the test and what we need to have in place to be prepared. ’’

Milton has added technology over the past several years so the three classes of Milton High School juniors who took PARCC tests were ready, said John Phelan, assistant superintendent for curriculum and personnel.

The ability to take the online tests was aided by two nonprofits — the Milton Foundation for Education and the Copeland Foundation — which offered a combined $800,000 in grants to install wireless Internet, and buy iPads and Chromebooks, Phelan said. Town government also helped by including the schools in its technology plan, McCarthy said.

On the other hand, Middleborough School Superintendent Roseli Weiss said the PARCC test will stretch resources and staffing levels beyond their limits.

“No one ever asked me if I have enough personnel to do this, and I don’t,” Weiss said, after the test wrapped up on March 28.

Like much of the state, Middleborough elementary school students took the PARCC test online, but students at Middleborough High, where the wi-fi signal is elusive, had to use paper and pencils, she said.

“It was a tremendous amount of work and very confusing,’’ Weiss said. “If the Common Core is so different [from] MCAS, you have to make changes, but this is huge.”

Julia Fleming, a Middleborough High junior, said students resented missing classes for an exam that won’t count, and many didn’t take it seriously. It was also timed, she said, unlike the MCAS, which created more pressure.

“It was unfair to pick the junior class, because we are all looking at colleges and trying to finish the SATs,’’ she said. “And then we missed our first two classes for three days.”

The PARCC tests were much more difficult than the MCAS, Fleming said, yet the directions were so repetitive it was like being treated like a child.

“It should have been optional,” she said. “Or they should have given us some kind of compensation.”

PARCC also was poorly received by Lisa Guisbond, who runs the nonprofit advocacy group Citizens for Public Schools. She said said a groundswell of educators and parents believe “enough is enough” when it comes to the new exam.

Statistics show Massachusetts leads the nation in academic performance, Guisbond said, so why is a new test necessary? Growing resistance has prompted a few school committees around the state to try to let their students opt out.

State Representative Keiko Orrall, a Lakeville Republican and former elementary school teacher, said she asked the state for a cost analysis, but it hasn’t replied. Late last month, she filed legislation to “pause” the PARCC exams and Common Core until the end of the year.

Though the bill still needs sponsors before it can advance, Orrall hopes the pending legislation will prompt officials to provide more information.

In the meantime, she said, teachers statewide, including a group in her district in Middleborough, say they are at the breaking point.

“They can not take one more thing,’’ Orrall said. “I heard them loud and clear.’’

The assessment will be fine-tuned over the next 48 months, using feedback from administrators, teachers, and the approximately 80,000 students who are taking the exam.

J.C. Considine, Chester’s chief of staff, said the trial run for PARCC is simply a way of building the best test possible. He could not offer a figure for the total projected cost.

According to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, approximately one-third of Massachusetts schools require infrastructure upgrades in order to be ready for online assessments like PARCC.

A $38 million technology bond bill that has been approved in the House and is being considered in the Senate Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures, and State Assets has been touted as a way to help pay for wireless upgrades in 600 public schools.

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at michelebolton@live.com.

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