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PRINCETON: Plan developed to get more PARCC participation from students

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
Princeton school officials have mapped out a plan to get more students to take state math and language arts tests this spring after low participation rates last year, when large numbers of high school students skipped the exam.
Princeton and other districts that had a lower than 95 percent student participation rate on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, tests have to file with the New Jersey Department of Education a corrective action plan. In the report, the district listed steps it has taken or will take, including administering PARCC during one week rather than three at the high school and John Witherspoon Middle School.
Officials said last year’s extended testing period caused conflicts for high school students, who had to choose between attending their regular classes or taking PARCC. In its report to the state, the district said it “was not possible to isolate the instructional program and the testing schedule, so many students chose to attend their classes rather than participate in testing.”
Princeton high school senior Nick Pibl, a student representative to the Princeton Board of Education, spoke at Tuesday’s board meeting about his experiences with taking PARCC last year — among the handful of juniors to do so.
“The scheduling was a big thing for me,” he said. “I was the only kid in my entire math class that was missing that day, so my teacher continued on and I had to catch up. If we did have that option, though, to move the schedule around, especially if it’s only within one week rather than three, it would definitely make for a more ideal situation where I personally believe more students would end up taking the test and not opt out of it.”
Also, the district said it had lacked “sufficient technology” last year, so it needed a three-week testing period at all schools. Superintendent of Schools Stephen C. Cochrane said at the board meeting that there were not enough computers to test all freshmen, sophomores and juniors at one time. To fix that, the district bought more computers.
PARCC will be administered at the high school the week of April 11 and at the middle school the week of April 18, according to the district.
In the 2014-15 school year, the Christie administration rolled out PARCC testing for students in grades three to 11, a move that replaced an older form of state standardized math and English tests. This version is computer-based, so Mr. Cochrane said the district had taken more time last year familiarizing students with taking a test on computer.
Yet the move to PARCC was controversial, opposed by the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and parents around the state, part of a larger resistance to standardized testing that has spawned concerns that teachers are teaching to the test. Participation was low at the high school, where only 30 juniors out of 370 took the PARCC English exam, for example. Mr. Cochrane said the tests have “potential,” a way for administrators to see how Princeton students are doing on assessments designed to gauge their proficiency in Common Core standards.
“But we’re not going to see that value for several years, when we have a record of performance of students over the course of several years,” he said. “And we’re certainly not going to see the value if our participation rates are excessively low.”
During the meeting Mr. Cochrane touched on the teach to the test concerns.“My philosophy, and what I will always say to teachers, is good instruction leads to good test results,” he said. “I would encourage our teachers to teach and not to teach to the test.”
As part of its plan, the district said it would “communicate the value of the PARCC results to improve the instructional program.” But board president Andrea Spalla, saying there are “serious questions” about PARCC, expressed concern with what message the district intends to make.
“To present anything other than a very balanced, full set of information about this test, would be to do a disservice to everyone,” she said.
In remarks directed at Mr. Cochrane and assistant Superintendent Bonnie Lehet, Ms. Spalla said later that it would be a “shame” for them “to do anything to lose that credibility for honesty and forthrightness with the community by being perceived in any way as being a mouthpiece for an assessment system.”
“That’s not going to happen,” Mr. Cochrane assured her.

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