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Facing state deadline, School committee grapples with new testing direction

School Committee logo, Jan. 23, 2013

UPDATED, June 22: Under pressure of a June 30 state deadline, the School Committee wrestled with a variety issues involved in a new standard test for students before deciding to meet June 26 to vote on the issue that carries many unknowns.

The hourlong discussion about whether to agree early or later about PARCC was among the liveliest this year, yielding a range of emotions, many of them underscored by ambivalence. The doubt is about state-required testing called Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers that had trial runs in Arlington this spring.

"I personally go back and forth" on the matter, Superintendent Kathleen Bodie told the committee Thursday, June 12. It's "not a clear-cut decision."

She said the opinion among superintendents about whether to accept online PARCC testing by June 20 "about 50-50."

The School Committee Curriculum, Instruction, Assessment and Accountability Subcommittee met Monday, June 23, in the School Committee Room, sixth floor, Arlington High School. First on the agenda is a discussion of PARCC vs MCAS

3 from public raise questions

Discussion among committee members went in a number of directions after they heard three presentations during public participation -- one from Ottoson sixth-grader Naomi Alperin, who offered reasons to question the testing as well as a petitions signed 60 students. Two others were from the president of the Arlington Educational Foundation, which provided reasons for opposition, and from the president of the teachers' union, which was more measured.

Bodie said that because the state will seeking bids on online equipment this summer, it needs to know by June 30 which districts will sign on the assessment plan, due to take effect in the next school year.

Globe, June 19: 52 districts choose PARCC

Globe, June 16: Most schools lacking tech muscle

Districts have some choices: Go to PARCC or stay with MCAS? If a district chooses PARCC, it can choose by school whether to do PARCC online or on paper, as MCAS has been done since the beginning, in 1998.

Districts may choose to wait to decide until Oct. 1, but that would mean no guarantee students could get the online version.

Taking the PARCC route would affect grades three through eight (English language arts and math tests). All other grades will have MCAS.

Bodie said she had no recommendation the on PARC online for ninth and 11th grades.

That said, she said: "Our recommendation this evening is to support PARCC online."

She added that a decision on the matter must come from the School Committee.

For background, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Laura Chesson presented a series of pro and cons about PARCC (see the full text below).

State approval likely

Among her points, she said PARCC testing is likely to be approved by the state Board of Education.

When member Judson Pierce asked why alternatives weren't considered, Bodie noted that Mitchell Chester, state education commissioner since 2008, is chair of the governing board of PARCC.

Pierce made a strong pitch for the committee waiting to decide until a public forum on the issue could be held in September. Committee Chairman said he agreed with him. Pierce cited committee goals, approved that night, supporting such a public process and for supporting students' social and emotional well-being.

Member Paul Schlichtman offered a series of observations. "There's no good answer," he said, still concluding he favored back PARCC online.

Saying "MCAS is obsolete," the administrator of the test for 12 years said the long composition is "useless statistically."

While MCAS doesn’t measure writing, it "does a good job on open response," he said, and that is also a strength of PARCC.

Comparing schools using two standard tests will be complicated, he said.

He thought it is "worth getting into this a little faster than others."

Other members weigh in

Member Kirsi Allison-Ampe expressed concerns that a number of students during trials at Ottoson and Dallin this spring could not understand directions.

"We haven't done the background work we need to do," she said. "I don't feel comfortable with our students taking this test."

Member Jeff Thielman asked, "What I want to know is: To what extent have there been conversations between teachers, principals and administrators about this?"

Chesson, seeming to be a refereeing among a number of interests, said: "They don't think test is perfect."

She said she is heartened that 72 out of 80 kids didn't have problems. She noted the numbers of problems when MCAS began and, eventually, they were ironed out.

"This will start us down the road to where we can get data," she said.

Thielman echoed Allison-Ampe about the need for more information.

Bodie said that the committee would have to decide without receiving data about the PARCC trials from state. Given that vacuum, she said that standard assessments "have changed what we do in school" in ways that are more positive than negative. She called this educational trend "revolutionary."

Member Jennifer Susse, agreed with Schlichtman that there are no good options. She said she worried about the quality of the PARCC test.

What about waiting?

Hayner wondered what might be risked by waiting. While MCAS is aligned with Common Core curriculum, he said PARCC is not.

"I'm not going to vote to support this [PARCC online]," he said. "I feel strongly on that."

Member Cindy Starks offered some of the sharpest comments, making clear that she had been anti-PARCC, but is not now, after attending a number of presentations about it. (In April, she raised questions about Chester.)

Mitchell ChesterChester:

A teacher who has administered MCAS for five years, she said that when she asks her students about that test, she gets the same answers -- about confusion, etc. -- that students expressed who signed the Ottoson petition.

She said: "I’m going back and forth as well .... I don't really know .... Maybe it's better to move forward."

At the same time, she raised key questions about cost and IT capacity.

She said she learned through inquiries with Burlington and Framingham, that their districts "have to add hundreds of thousands of dollars to do PARCC testing." In Burlington, 2,000 were tested.

Chesson said she estimated moving a much greater number to PARCC testing would costs $30,000. Arlington would do it by using less-expensive keyboards and a caching server, which is able to handle more operations at once.

As Starks asked questions, Hayner twice asked for a motion.

Thielman asked what would occur if not decision were made until September. Bodie said the district would rely on MCAS only.

Thielman asked for another meeting to decide in two weeks. "There is only so much you can do with a state mandate," he said,

Schlichtman -- saying, "It's not fair to anyone to 'punt this' and wait until September" -- moved to meet June 26. Thielman seconded.

Before the vote, discussion continued, and Hayner asked that members be recognized before speaking.

The motion to meet June 26 passed, 6-1, with Pierce voting no.

Watch the June 12 meeting here >>

Pros and cons

Laura Chesson, assistant superintendent, provided the following document titled "PARCC VS. MCAS" to the School Committee on June 12:

Recommendation of Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent as of 6/10/14: PARCC online for grades 3 - 8

No recommendation as of yet for grade 9, 11

Basis for recommendation: Pros:

Curriculum-based considerations:

Staff reports that the requirement to take information from multiple sources in order to produce a writing product is similar to advacnced-placement tasks and therefore lay the ground work for development of such skills.

Types of questions asked in PARCC are in line with work being done in the district (which two of the following answers are correct -- requiring students to use their understanding of equivalent equations in mathematics?)

Our staff believes that it gives us a better measure of tasks required by the Common Core that cannot be tested using a paper-and-pencil test.

Instruction-based considerations:

• The types of questions asked and tasks required, staff report, are in line with the pedagogical techniques required by the Common Core

Technical-based considerations:

Our experience with PARCC online showed minimal technical problems and we have sufficient capacity in terms of tech support, bandwidth, and devices to handle the PARCC testing schedule.

• Proctors report that students had very little difficulty accessing tools and answering questions -- we believe in part to the training and preparation provided by staff.

Future testing and accountability-based considerations:

We will be able to gain experience taking such a test while at the same time being "held harmless" in terms of accountability.  

If Board of Education supports PARCC -- which is what is expected -- our students will have had a year to practice and our teachers will have data in order to iron out any problems with test administration prior to the time when the accountability factor comes into play.

• By participating in the process to help refine the PARCC we raise our opportunity to get a true look at what the actual test, not the practice tests, but the actual tests look like in order to be able to provide the targeted feedback that is necessary to make the test better.

Student-impact considerations:

Staff reports students were engaged and very comfortable.

At the middle school level in the math test, only one or two students took more than 42 of the 60 minutes allowed and all finished.

Organizational efforts to prepare for the test administration, to give the test administration, and to do post-administration work are significantly lessened. This will result in a significantly less loss of instructional time (teachers will be able to spend more time instructing students than getting ready for MCAS), significantly less loss of administrative and guidance support time (administrators and guidance will be able to spend more time handling student needs and less time handling MCAS paper distribution, tracking, and collecting).

• While the length in days of PARCC is longer (nine days), the actual elapsed time in the testing environment is less because of a much simpler testing protocol; this will lead to a minimized disruption. ALT-MCAS remains for most needy special-education students.


Budgetary -- we will have to purchase keyboards for elementary schools and iPad stands (approximately $25 - $30K), however we would have purchased these to begin keyboarding instruction.

Some changes in modifications that will affect some special education students.

Teachers will have to be retrained on test administration. Timed test for regular education students.

The number of testing days is greater.

Was it harder or easier to take the test on the computer?

80 students surveyed:

• 42 said easier

• 10 about the same

• 28 said harder, but mostly due to technical issues with computers

Of the students who said easier:

    -- I think it was easier because I knew that my typing would be legible.

    -- It was a lot easier to take the test on a computer because you could change your answer more easily and you could highlight the parts of the question that you needed to focus on. I also liked the calculator part of the test (but in the beginning I didn't realize that it was there so I did the math on my paper).

    -- I think that the test was easier to take on an iPad or computer than on paper because you did not have to have all your papers falling on the ground and stuff.

    -- It was hard but I liked it more than the paper test.

Of the students who said it was harder:

    -- Some things were hard but some weren't. I think what was hard was that I didn't know everything that was on the test so I guessed some of the questions.

    -- It was harder putting down the format and dragging answers

    -- It was difficult to not have a place to do your work for a question directly under the question, and instead have to do it on a separate piece of paper. It was also more difficult for me because I like to write myself notes next to some of the answers on multiple choice questions, and I couldn't do that.

Had you studied most of the material on the test in your math class?

72 said yes

3 said no

5 said half and half

Were the directions hard to understand?

53 No

14 Sometimes

13 Yes

This story was published Tuesday, June 17, 2014, and updated June 19.

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