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Updated: March 4, 2014 6:15AM

AURORA — At West Aurora’s McCleery Elementary, 58 third-graders are preparing to field test a new standardized assessment in math this spring.

The field test is being conducted by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, which includes 18 states and Washington, D.C.

That group is working together to develop common assessments in math and English language arts, which are scheduled to replace the ISAT as Illinois’ standardized test next school year.

A total of 677 Illinois districts were selected at random by the state to participate in the PARCC field test, then were told which schools and grade levels would be tested. The districts selected classrooms to test at random.

Fifty-six schools in eight local districts were selected for the field test. Among the districts participating are: Elgin U46, Carpentersville-based District 300, Burlington-based Central 301, East Aurora, West Aurora, Indian Prairie 204, Naperville 203, Batavia 101, Kaneland 302, Yorkville 115 and Sandwich 430.

The purpose of the field test is to evaluate the quality of questions to help build a better test next year and let school districts see what it’s like to administer the PARCC test. Scores don’t count for students, who are told it’s a practice test.

Jennie Dickerson, one of two McCleery third-grade teachers who will participate in the pilot, said her students were excited when they heard they would be the “testers of the test.”

“I said they were really lucky because they’re the first ones that get to take it,” Dickerson said. “Someone said, ‘We’re the guinea pigs?’ And I said yes, you are.”

Testing differences

There are several key differences between the PARCC exam that students will be field-testing between March and June and the ISAT.

The PARCC exam is administered twice a year — once when a course is about three-quarters finished and once at the end of the year — compared to the annual ISAT.

While the ISAT was taken on paper and pencil, the goal is to administer the PARCC exam on a computer — though several districts are field-testing a paper-and-pencil version.

The PARCC testing window is four weeks, instead of ISAT’s two, to give districts more time to work with the technology. Students from third to 11th grade will take the PARCC exam, while ninth- and 10th-graders didn’t take ISAT.

The kinds of questions also will be different, as the PARCC is aligned to the new, more rigorous Common Core State Standards.

“It is a little more interesting of a test to take than any other test they’ve taken,” McCleery’s Dickerson said. “I think they’ll be more engaged.”

Dickerson said when she showed her students sample questions some thought they looked hard, but they also liked that they would be interacting with the math problems, “instead of just reading and answering questions.”

On English tests, students will find real-world texts such as poems and biography excerpts, instead of passages created for the test, as well as sequences of related questions instead of random question sets. On math tests, students will see multi-step problems and more focus on fewer skills.

On the computer test, students will drag and drop text and numbers, highlight passages and build their own equations to show how they arrived at their answers.

“That’s one of the things that will be very different,” said Kathy Kostos, West Aurora’s director of assessments. “It’s kind of scaffolded at each level, so what the equation editor will look like for a third-grader is different than for an 11th-grader.”

Participating districts

Students in 13 Elgin U46 schools will field test the PARCC exam, said Laura Hill, U46’s director of assessment and accountability.

“Our breakdown is as follows: 12 sixth-grade grade classes, two fifth-grade classes, six fourth-grade classes, six third-grade classes, six algebra courses and two geometry courses,” she said.

Two schools, four courses total, are completing paper and the remaining are completing the computer-based test.

Nineteen of 27 schools in Carpentersville-based Community Unit School District 300 were selected for the pilot, with two or three classrooms participating per school, according to district spokesman Allison Strupeck.

The schools include all three high schools, all six middle schools and 10 elementary schools.

At East Aurora about 350 students are participating in the field test at four schools — the high school, one middle school and two elementary schools — most of which will be do a paper-and-pencil version of the test, said David Brusak, East Aurora’s director of school improvement.

Carla Johnson, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction, said East Aurora is prepared for the test, as teachers and administrators have long discussed the coming assessment.

“PARCC isn’t just something that happens to us in the springtime,” she said. “We’ve been ahead of this one all along.”

Brusak said the state has been offering webinars and workshops to make sure administrators understand how the field test will work.

“We’re to a point now where we have a pretty good understanding of how this is going to unfold,” he said.

At West Aurora about 750 to 800 students are participating in the field test at 13 schools, Kostos said. That includes all of the elementary schools and three middle schools. One elementary is doing a paper-and-pencil test, while the rest are doing it on the computer.

At Indian Prairie, 721 students will participate in the field test, according to Patrick Nolten, the district’s executive director of assessment, research and evaluation. According to state records, nine schools are participating: one high school, one middle school and seven elementary schools.

Indian Prairie will focus on a portion of the English computer-based test, which amounts to roughly a quarter of the exam, Nolten said.

Testing time

According to PARCC’s website, most students participating in the field test are taking only one part of the exam in either math or English “in order to minimize testing burden on individual students and schools.”

Districts still have to administer the ISAT to students participating in the PARCC test. But how much time students spend on the PARCC field test will vary widely among districts and schools.

That’s because sessions vary in length based on grade level, content area, type of session and whether students take the test at the end of the year or three-quarters through.

In January, PARCC estimated the time for students to complete field test sessions would range from 40 to 80 minutes in English and from 50 to 70 minutes in math.

At East Aurora, for example, that would mean the most students will spend on the PARCC field test is around 350 minutes, while the least time is 100 minutes.

“Because we’re not blanketly giving it I would say it’s not significant per student,” Brusak said of the additional testing time.

Technology readiness

State education officials have expressed concern over whether districts will have the needed technology and Internet capabilities in place by next year to administer the PARCC fully on the computer.

“Our online capacity in this state and our technology infrastructure is not where it should be,” State Superintendent Christopher Koch said at an Aurora education roundtable in mid-January. Koch estimated that only one-quarter of schools in Illinois can offer online instruction.

Hill said District U46 is making sure they are ready.

“We are in the process of preparing for the field test by running system checks on our computers as PARCC/Pearson has already sent a set of guidance for district on this,” Hill said.

For the most part, the District 300 expects to be prepared for the technology needed to complete the exams.

“We do believe that we have sufficient computers,” Strukpeck said. “We’re still waiting on more technical information for signing in to the system.”

Nolten said Indian Prairie will be double-checking to see if the suggested bandwidth is adequate for students taking the exam and seeing how well the technology functions during the field test.

That’s in addition to watching to see how students are able to navigate on the computers during a test, Nolten said, and evaluating the demands on the teachers administering the test.

East Aurora spokesman Matt Hanley said the district has enough devices in place to do the pilot this spring and by next year East Aurora will have enough computers for all students to take the PARCC.

West Aurora’s Kostos said the district isn’t worried about students taking tests on the computer, but will be giving students time to practice with the PARCC test’s specific tools.

Carol Cofer, whose third-grade class at McCleery Elementary will be piloting a math test this spring, said while her students have taken computer-based tests before, this one “is going to be a little more stringent.”

“They will have to compose their answers and type them into the computer,” she said. “That will be a challenge we’ll have to address.”

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