Testing The Test: Ohio Districts Try Out The Common Core Assessments

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With her first encounter with the new Common Core Assessment behind her, Lorain math teacher Kristen Mackey is back in her classroom, doing what comes as second nature to her: working through problems with her students.

“You have your X,1, Y,1… your X,2, Y,2,” she instructs the class while jotting the equation next to a graph on the dry erase board. “So we get 7 minus negative 5, and 4 minus negative 6. What happens to your double-negatives?

“Positive,” the kids chime in.

“Positive,” Mackey affirms.

Mackey and her eighth grade students navigated their way through the first part of this year's Common Core Assessment field test in March. The exercise is just a dry run to expose the bugs in the system so they can be worked out by next year, when the results will actually count. Mackey suggests it's worth doing.

“We need to get some glitches out, especially on the technology end,” she tells me.

The Common Core standards, which emphasize analytical thinking over rote memorization, were developed by education professionals from around the country and rolled out in 2010.

The tests were developed by PARCC - the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, which is developing assessments for 16 states, including Ohio, that have fully adopted the Common Core. They are fully web-based, although some Ohio districts that don’t yet have the required technology are using pencil and paper versions for the field test.

Lorain City Schools did manage to put the necessary systems in place, but it was a challenge, says Mark Evans, the district's Director of Data and Accountability.

“We were fortunate in that we were able to leverage some of our grant funding in order to get i-Pads and laptops and computers that were efficient enough and met the requirements and specs,” Evans says.

As for the test itself, Evans says some students had trouble just accessing it, mostly due to lack of bandwidth. He says that caused computers trying to log into PARCC servers to time out. One class had its test postponed for a day.

Those problems were ultimately overcome, but it was still a rocky experience for many students. Kristen Mackey says many of hers found the digital format difficult to maneuver - unlike the current Ohio Achievement Assessment, which the PARCC exam will replace starting next year.

“They couldn't see the math question in front of them like they can on the regular OAA, where it's paper and pencil right in front of them,” she says. “They kept scrolling down, scrolling up. It was constant scrolling and learning how to use the tools.”

Eighth grade English teacher Jennifer George says her students had similar experiences.

“The students were kind of overwhelmed with the way it was formatted,” says George.

“The stories, they would have to keep scrolling back to find things. We teach them close reading skills, when you’re looking for answers and highlighting and starring things, and they were having trouble using the tools to do that.”

I talked to several eighth grade students who confirmed they found the tests frustrating. Havelyn Murray says it’s a big change from the pencil and paper tests she’s used to.

“The PARCC test, you have all these fancy gadgets and what-you-have-its on it, and I just feel it’s overwhelming, stressful, and the computers aren't that reliable," she says.

“In the computer, they have all this new stuff,” and it might be better,” says eighth grader Rafael Pachero.

“But we’re not used to that,” he says, “and we can’t get into it if we don’t, you know, have a feeling for it. With the OAA, we’ve been doing it for so many years that we know what to do and it’s a lot easier for us.”

PARCC CEO Laura Slover says without a doubt, there will be a learning curve and transition period during which students, teachers and administrators will become more familiar with the Common Core Assessment. And, she says, comments like we've heard from Lorain are not unexpected. PARCC will be collecting and processing them, along with reams of other data from hundreds of school districts over the coming months.

"The field test is a big research study, essentially,” Slover says. “And it enables us to know that when we go into the field with the first operational test, the test is going to work as planned, is high quality, and we can deliver reliable and valid results."

Teacher Kristen Mackey says despite the technical glitches and students' frustration, she fully supports moving ahead with implementing the Common Core.

“I have very high expectations of all my students, and I don't lower them,” Kristen Mackey says. “And I think our teaching needs to adapt to the test a little bit, and we need to change how we're explaining things and our wording…”

“And the kids will get there.” she says. “It just won’t happen overnight.

Jennifer George agrees.

“We do a lot of discussing in class, and a lot of writing and explaining,” George says. "And I did see a lot of that on the PARCC, where they had to explain, and a lot of higher level thinking. And I also have high expectations. The standards are high on the PARCC, but if you don’t set high standards you’re not going to get there.”

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