PARCC assessment raises concerns for parents, educators

Joshua Kellogg The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — A new skills assessment test students are currently taking in New Mexico schools is under heavy criticism from some parents, students and teachers.

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, is the new annual exam for students in grades three through 11 and replaces the New Mexico Standards Based Assessment.

The PARCC exam covers English, language arts and math and is aligned with Common Core State Standards adopted by the New Mexico Public Education Department in 2010.

Farmington High School English teacher Stephanie Jacquez sat on the "Bias and Sensitivity" committee that reviewed English and language arts questions for the PARCC organization.

Jacquez inspected questions to ensure they were not offensive based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, language, socioeconomic status and geographic region.

She said the exam is a more modern test, using multimedia resources like radio transcripts and videos to examine a student's ability to synthesize and analyze information.

The exam is interactive with a focus on critical thinking skills, sometimes asking students to highlight and annotate text as part of answering a question.

"This type of test is looking to see if students can find evidence in a text, not just answer a recall question," Jacquez said. "The classroom environment looks very different than when I was in school."

Farmington high English department head Brenda McNeal said teachers are concerned about the performance of their students on the new exam.

"We talked about student success and where they want to be, we don't want the student to feel like a failure," McNeal said. "In many teachers' minds, they feel like the test sets up the kids for failure. We don't want to see that. That's the fear."

Christy Jaqua, a mother of a Farmington elementary student, said she has decided to pull her student from school to avoid the PARCC exam.

Jaqua said she feels the standardized testing is a opportunity for testing companies to boost profits.

"Teachers are getting threatened and not informing the parents, I knew nothing about any of it," Jaqua said. "When I finally started digging into it, I decided I'm not going to let my kid be a pawn."

Jaqua also said she feels the direction from the federal and state education departments on the "high stakes" exam are setting students up for failure.

Those concerns have caused hundreds of students statewide to walk out of class in protest of the PARCC exam. Despite some efforts to organize protests in the Farmington area, there had been no mass walkouts as of last week.

Parents have been looking for ways for their children to opt-out of taking the exam. That has caused confusion as some districts are offering opt-out forms that might not be legal.

Jaqua said the difficult part of opting her child out of the PARCC exam is the collateral damage it might cause. Test results are used to evaluate teachers and formulate grades given annually by the Public Eduction Department, or PED, to the state's schools.

"I don't want the school or teacher to be downgraded but I want to stand up for what is right for the kids and there is a cost for that" Jaqua said.

Ellen Hur, PED spokeswoman, said federal and state law requires students to take annual assessments with no option for exemption or right to refusal.

"We've used annual assessments in our state ... for decades," Hur said.

In San Juan County, the Aztec Municipal School District is the only district to offer an opt-out form for the PARCC exam.

Judy Englehart, Aztec schools director of instruction, said the district has received about 50 opt-out forms from parents.

Englehart said the forms help keep track of student attendance and parents who don't want their children to take the test.

"We are really discouraging every student from opting out," Englehart said. "We have to respect the rights of the parents but it's not beneficial for the school and district. It's a fine line between parents rights and what we are required (to do) by the PED."

Phil Valdez, Farmington Municipal School District interim superintendent, said the district is not offering opt-out forms but schools will accept written notes from parents if they don't want their students taking the exam.

Valdez said the notes will provide records of why students were absent that day and have no test scores on file.

If schools have less than a 95 percent rate of participation, the PED grade will automatically drop by a letter grade.

The state's teacher evaluation system relies on three years of standards-based assessment data for as much as 50 percent of a teacher's score. The PARCC results will be included in the 2015-2016 evaluations.

Skipping the test also could prevent high school students from graduating with a diploma. Hur and several school officials also said 11th-grade students who decline to take the PARCC exam are not allowed to pursue alternative options available that would allow them to receive a diploma.

The state-approved "alternative demonstrations of competency" allow students to demonstrate their skills in reading, writing, science, math and social studies by passing end of course exams or using scores from the ACT, SAT, PSAT and other college placement exams.

High school students who decline to take the PARCC exam, will graduate with a certificate of completion and not a diploma. A certificate of completion states that a student has earned the necessary credits for graduation but has not completed the rest of the work needed for a diploma.

Three Hermosa Middle School students said they did not find the PARCC exam more difficult than last year's assessment.

Seventh-grader Rylee Strauss found it easier to take the test on a computer.

"It's easy but I don't like that you have write an essay," Strauss said.

Eighth-grader Rebekah Mackey said the PARCC exam isn't too different, but her test computer crashed and kicked her out of the exam.

Mackey compared the exam, which she said was easy to understand, to the quarterly Schoolnet assessment students take.

"It's a little easier than last year but the prompts are more difficult," Mackey said. "It doesn't explain itself as well as it did last year."

Mackey said a lot of students in her algebra class were nervous about the test, since it's a requirement for graduation.

"I think it's going to be really easy," Mackey said. But "if I don't pass it this year, I can take it again when I'm a junior."

Joshua Kellogg covers education forThe Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4527 and jkellogg@daily-times.com. Follow him @jkelloggdt on Twitter.