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This is the final article in a series on the Common Core State Standards in Massachusetts done in collaboration with WGBH.

A trial run of new online tests in Massachusetts has received mixed reviews from the state’s educators. Although some school district officials say they’re confident they’ll be able to handle the shift to computer-based testing if it becomes mandatory in two years, others worry that technical problems on the local level will make the results meaningless.

In March and May, nearly 70,000 randomly selected students in Massachusetts took the new tests, which are meant to be aligned with Common Core standards now in place in 43 states. Hundreds of thousands of other students in 13 other states were also part of the trial run of the exam, which is known as PARCC, for the multi-state consortium that designed it, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

Common Core tests
A student at Townsend Elementary in the Appoquinimink school district in Delaware taking a computer-based test. (Photo by Sarah Garland)

Some Massachusetts districts officials said the test stretched their technical resources. The City Council of Cambridge and Braintree’s School Committee were among those who sent letters to the state expressing concern about the new exams.

“While we applaud the efforts of the PARCC consortium… the current product is fraught with difficulties that prevent it from fairly assessing students’ skills and school systems’ work,” Braintree Superintendent Maureen Murray and School Committee Chairman David Ringius wrote. “As it stands, we fear that it is just not feasible for us to implement this test in our district.”

This year, schools in Massachusetts, like others across the country, began to phase in the Common Core standards, which lay out what all students should be able to do in math and English in kindergarten through twelfth grade to prepare them for college and careers. Common Core-aligned tests are the next step.

Massachusetts will not formally decide whether to adopt PARCC until the end of the 2014-15 school year and, next spring, school districts will be able to choose between it and a state-developed test.

But while some struggled with PARCC, others districts have already elected to continue with it and reported that the trial run was largely successful. The sneak peak they got at the new 10th grade English exam left staff at Concord-Carlisle High School feeling confident.

“Technology wise, it went great,” said Concord-Carlisle Vice Principal Brian Miller of the May pilot test that two sophomore English classes took. “We had no issues.”

Already well equipped with technology, Concord-Carlisle only had to download a few updates and make a couple of calls to the PARCC help hotline to prep for the test, Miller said. Students also went through a “dress rehearsal” the week before the test, where they learned how to navigate between questions and translate paper-and-pencil test taking strategies, like how to cross out answers, to the screen.

Part of the drive to move the Common Core-aligned tests to computers came out of the test developers’ desire to move beyond multiple-choice questions. Those will still exist, but the new tests may include more open-ended response questions and math questions where students must fill in the blanks. Sample questions have included asking students to drag a certain number of objects into a box to demonstrate knowledge of ratios or list events from a passage in chronological order.

Some questions on the 10th grade English exam at Concord-Carlisle required students to drag parts of the passage around. “It was basically multiple choice, but they tried to make it more interactive,” Miller said.

He added that students were split on whether they found the test difficult or easy, and on whether they liked taking it on a computer. All students finished within 40 minutes, well below the allotted 75 minutes.

Nationally, the outlook for the new test appears unclear. In the spring of 2010, PARCC had 23 member states. Now that number has shrunk to 13. Indiana dropped the Common Core altogether. Some states such as Florida, North Dakota and Georgia have pulled out to make their own tests, citing concerns about the quality of the exam and the cost.

Some Massachusetts residents want the state to consider following suit. At a November Massachusetts Board of Education meeting, a parent and a local school board member urged the board to think about switching to another Common Core-aligned exam. Others have argued that the fact Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester chairs PARCC’s governing board prohibits the Board of Education from making an unbiased decision, a claim he rejects.

“My interest is providing the strongest possible program for the students of Massachusetts,” Chester told the Boston Globe. “We wanted to do more with students involving writing and applying their knowledge. We wanted to implement more problem solving, online technologies for faster turnaround for teachers, and implement more use of digital tools.”

Miller says he has no strong feelings about whether the state should commit to PARCC. But whatever the vendor, there was at least one definitive argument in favor of testing online,. “There was no counting all the booklets at the end,” he said. “When we were done, we hit stop… It was really nice to not have to pack them all up and send them back.”

Find out more about Common Core.

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