CPS officials say they're tossing out results from last year's PLAN and EXPLORE tests -- and not paying the testing company more than a half-million dollars, because the assessments were freely available on the internet.

Teachers in Chicago and other cities think the PARCC is a much better assessment than previous state-mandated tests, but have mixed feelings about whether it’s age-appropriate or too challenging.

They also wish they had more professional development around the PARCC – and specifically, the chance to see more sample questions.

Those are some of the findings from a report released today by Teach Plus that’s based on a survey of more than 1,000 teachers in three states and the District of Columbia. The results come just one day after Illinois began administering the controversial assessment to elementary school students and in the midst of an opt-out movement that’s picking up steam across the state and the country.

“What did surprise me is how strongly teachers felt nationally and in Chicago about how much better the PARCC was than the assessment that came before it, the ISAT,” says Josh Kaufmann, executive director of Teach Plus in Chicago. “The ISAT (Illinois Standards Achievement Test) was particularly bad. It’s much weaker at gauging student learning and looking at student critical thinking than other assessments.”

The survey from Teach Plus — a national nonprofit organization focused on creating growth and leadership opportunities for teachers in urban school districts — also found that:

– Overall, 79 percent of teachers say the PARCC is a higher quality exam than previous state tests. Kaufmann says that among the 340 or so Chicago teachers who took the survey, some 89 percent thought the PARCC is better than the ISAT, the previous state-mandated assessment.

– Teachers were divided when asked about how appropriately rigorous PARCC is, based on student grade level or knowledge of the Common Core State Standards.

– 93 percent of teachers think getting access to more sample questions would be “extremely useful” or “very useful” for their own preparation for administering the PARCC. Similarly, 86 percent thought more professional development would be helpful.

Iron out the kinks

But some teachers and critics of the controversial PARCC say the Teach Plus survey asked the wrong questions to begin with.

“I don’t care about whether the PARCC is better or worse than the ISAT,” says Katie Osgood, a special education teacher at Hughes Elementary who took part in the survey. “What I care about whether it’s going to be valuable for our students. I think that the PARCC is extremely damaging to our students.”

Osgood says the PARCC – which is significantly longer than the ISAT – adds to an already stressful testing environment at her school. “People are freaking out because administering the PARCC means we’re not preparing for the NWEA,” she said, referring to another test used in CPS for the purposes of teacher evaluations and school ratings.

Kaufmann agrees that students are being over-tested, and thinks the number of tests won’t go down until there’s at least a baseline year’s worth of results from the PARCC to which districts can later add “growth” data for the purposes of teacher evaluations.

But he also thinks it’s important to use this year as an opportunity to iron out the kinks in the PARCC before it becomes “high stakes.”

“I think a lot of the pushback around PARCC is not around the PARCC exam itself, but pushback on the over-testing of students. Chicago is a district that over-tests students,” he says. “But what I really hope for this year is if we calm down some of the people who are super anti-testing, and spend some time really learning from this run-through, I think next year will be much better.”

Carol Caref, a research consultant for the Chicago Teachers Union, says there are ways to reduce the amount of testing in CPS.

Caref says the union would like to see the district do away with the NWEA and rate teachers using assessments created by teachers themselves. (State law allows districts to use different types of assessments to rate teachers.)

“They should move to using [this type of assessment] that teachers are using in their classrooms anyways with their students,” says Caref. “So it wouldn’t be an extra, external test but something that’s part of their classroom anyway.”

Caref says this is one issue the CTU was focused on going into this year’s contract negotiations with the district.

Mobilizing against the PARCC

Kaufmann says he wasn’t surprised that surveyed teachers in Chicago thought they could benefit from getting more preparation for the PARCC.

“That has to do with how CPS approached it,” he says. “Since this past summer, CPS has been saying they weren’t going to do the PARCC. Since they were saying that institutionally, why would they put a lot of their effort in professional development around that?”

Last fall, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said she’d asked the state to let the district delay giving the PARCC. The state denied the requests, citing a potential loss of federal funding if not all students took the assessment. Then in January, CPS announced it would defy the state mandate and only administer the test at 10 percent of schools. Finally last week, CPS capitulated and agreed to test all students to avoid the risk of lost funding.

Osgood says the delayed decision may have weakened the opt-out movement, as parents and teachers didn’t know until last week that all schools would give the assessment. “It feels to me like if we’d known we were taking it all along, parents might have been better at mobilizing against it,” she says.

Still, Cassie Cresswell of the anti-testing group More Than A Score thinks as many as 20,000 students statewide might refuse to take the PARCC – judging by the interest and feedback she’s hearing from parents across the state. In comparison, Cresswell says that last year, a little more than 2,000 students refused to take the state-mandated ISAT, the majority from Chicago.

“So far this year we’ve heard from people in 70 school districts in Illinois, parents telling us they’re going to opt out,” she says.

Photo: Testing erasures/Shutterstock

Melissa Sanchez is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at msanchez@chicagoreporter.com and follow her on Twitter at @msanchezMIA.

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