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March 16, 2015

In schools across the country, it is testing season –an anxiety-provoking time for parents, students and teachers. This year, there’s a new twist to the old stress: beginning Monday about 220,000 Massachusetts students will take a new standardized test – one that is designed to better assess new standards set by the state.

WGBH’s Kirk Carapezza put himself to the test. 

To get a better idea of the difference between the new exam and the 20-year-old Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exam that I took when I was in school, I got over my test anxiety, set a timer and gave PARCC a test drive.

Unlike MCAS, PARCC is all computer-based although there is a paper and pencil version. Sampling some of the twenty-first century questions, it was clear that for a standardized test these questions weren't so standard. For example, here's a prompt:

Today you will research how penguins are rescued after a large oil spill. You will read two articles and then you will view a video. As you review these sources, you will gather information and answer questions about the rescue of penguins.

The new test also requires digital literacy. At one point, I was asked to watch a YouTube video and then write about it rather than answer multiple-choice questions.

In the math section, students are expected to explain how they arrived at their answers and some questions even have more than one correct one.

"Too often we teach math as a mechanics, but kids don't understand it conceptually and are able to apply that math to problem-solving situations," Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester told me at an event at the The Boston Foundation, where education leaders were able to preview the new exam.

Chester says the new test should reveal how students are being taught to think, write well and process information. He argues the MCAS wasn’t rigorous enough and students who passed the old test still made it into college unprepared.

"Too many of our young people are meeting all of the requirements that we've set for a high school diploma but they're not ready for what college expects and they're not ready for what employers expect," Chester said.

Related: Study: MCAS Test Does Not Indicate College and Career Readiness

One thing students and teachers can expect is that the new tests will be more demanding, says Paul Toner, former president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

“They are going to ask teachers both new and veteran to really learn a new way of teaching with different expectations," Toner said.

You can try out some questions from PARCC yourself  here.

Those expectations include teaching kids how to fully understand their answers, and Toner predicts doing that will be more difficult for most students, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“I think we need to see that as, 'OK, we have new assessments, we have higher expectations and we need to work toward that,'” Toner said.

The state will review the test results this summer, and then in the fall it will decide whether to sunset the old MCAS and adopt the new PAARC exam.

One of the outstanding issues in Massachusetts and around the country is that teachers have requested more time to prepare. Others have said all this focus on "high-stakes" testing goes too far, and some parents are opting their children out.

During last year's election, Governor Charlie Baker had said the state should stick with the MCAS. Now he's seeking an independent review of the two tests, calling for a series of public hearings.

Related: Amidst Standardized Testing, Parents Push Back Against Common Core

The Takeaway talks with Susan Engel, a developmental psychologist at Williams College in Massachusetts, and WGBH's Kirk Carapezza about the fierce debate surrounding the PARCC and other standardized tests:

remedial, Massachusetts, new business models, parcc, testing, MCAS

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