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Educators give option to skip test

In a sign of growing resistance to a new standardized test that could replace MCAS testing, some educators are giving students the right to skip a dry run now underway in classrooms across the state.

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers , or PARCC test, has raised concern that it overburdens smaller school districts, puts unnecessary stress on students, and needs more study before implementation. Even the method of testing — online rather than on paper — is causing concern.

“Massachusetts has completed five testing cycles in a row, finishing at the top in the country,” said Peabody School Committee member Dave McGeney. “Why go down this path for a test we don’t even know?”

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The School Committee earlier this month voted to allow parents to have their children opt out of taking the pilot test, which is being administered to students in grades 3 through 11. The test is being developed to measure new teaching standards adopted by Massachusetts in 2010 as part of the national Common Core initiative, which aims to prepare all US students for college and careers.

Paul Dakin, Revere’s superintendent of schools, supports Common Core but is “digging deep” for an opinion on PARCC, he said.

In his district, 77 percent of students are at the poverty level and 55 percent speak a language other than English at home, he said.

“I am guarded as an urban educator,” said Dakin. “We are indirectly testing the kids’ ability on technology. What I can’t fix as quickly is the transfer of knowledge from a kid who may not know how to click and drag a mouse.”

State education officials, however, say the online test is necessary, given the changes in technology and Web-based resources available to students since the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System standardized test was adopted 17 years ago.

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“We need a new test to align with the new standards,” said JC Considine, chief of staff at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The problem is that, even with MCAS testing, many students finish school without the skills needed to meet the demands of college and careers, state Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester said in a website video. Up to 40 percent of Massachusetts public high school graduates who go on to college must take at least one noncredit remedial course, Chester said. The PARCC test is designed to make sure students are on track throughout their years in school, but especially as they near graduation, he said.

Peabody is the first school district north of Boston to vote on the right to opt out of the PARCC field test, with a handful of other districts in Central and Western Massachusetts having already done so. However, Considine said that there are no provisions in state law that allow for opting out of the test and that school principals will be responsible for handling cases where students choose not to take it.

The public education advocacy group Citizens for Public Schools is serving as a clearinghouse for the opt-out sentiment. Contrary to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s legal opinion — sent to the Worcester School District — that the test is mandatory, opponents say since the PARCC exams are essentially a research project and results will not be used to assess students, the mandate does not apply.

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The state is field testing the PARCC test this year within two windows, said Considine; the first is underway and ends April 11; the next is from May 5 to June 6. The assessment test in English language arts and mathematics is slated for next year.

Education officials will evaluate how the test is received over the two years, and then the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will vote on whether to adopt PARCC as a replacement to MCAS after the 2014-2015 school year, he said.

Results from this year’s test, which is being conducted in some 300 districts statewide with 81,000 students from 1,070 schools, will not be shared with students, parents, or educators, said Considine.

“We are not testing the students; we are testing the test,” said Considine. “It is so important for our kids to participate, since this is the first time for a state online assessment and we need to know how that experience is.”

The decision not to share results has stirred concern among some school officials regarding the adoption of the Common Core teaching standards, said McGeney.

“Massachusetts has been slow to react because there was no sense of alarm, since we have been performing so high” on MCAS, said McGeney, who added that he began taking a closer look at the issue late last year.

McGeney proposes that Massachusetts follow the lead of New York, where Governor Andrew Cuomo, who, although he is a proponent of Common Core, has delayed implementation of the new teaching standards and testing pending further study.

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School committees in Norfolk and Worcester, as well as the Wachusett and Tantasqua regional districts, also have voted to allow parents to opt out their children from the PARCC field tests, while officials in the Cambridge and Mendon-Upton school districts have asked for provisions that would allow students to stay home on testing days or simply skip the test, according to the Citizens for Public Schools’ website.

School districts can also allow students taking PARCC tests this year to bow out of taking the MCAS tests. This poses a particular challenge for smaller school districts such as North Reading, where officials have decided that students must take both tests to avoid losing performance data from the MCAS. North Reading has not taken a vote to allow opting out of PARCC.

“If some of our students don’t take the MCAS, then those scores will be skewed,” said Mel Webster, a member of the North Reading School Committee. “So some students are going to have to take both tests, and I have a real problem with that.”

Funding the technology necessary for PARCC also presents a burden for many smaller school districts, added Webster.

Roy Belson, superintendent of Medford public schools, said that while he does not see any issues with Common Core, there will always be disagreement when it comes to curriculum.

“Going forward, I say if you opt out of PARCC, you lose the opportunity to give feedback on what this could be,” said Belson.

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Bella Travaglini can be reached at bellatrav@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @bellatrav.