By Dustin Luca
---- — MCAS season is about to begin, but students shouldn’t be too quick to sharpen their No. 2 pencils. Some youths in town won’t be needing them.
More than 400 students at six of the town’s 10 public schools are slated to play the role of guinea pig in a field test of a new partially computer-driven assessment program in the coming weeks.
Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers assessment program— better known as PARCC — is being explored by 19 states as a replacement to the traditional MCAS testing method. The new assessment method is facilitated by academic giant Pearson Education, Inc.
The test will hit specific classrooms in three elementary schools — High Plain, South and West — as well as all three middle schools, with the first classrooms being tested starting the end of this month. It will reach the high school later this year.
Superintendent Marinel McGrath said letters recently went out to households with students who are slated to take PARCC for a spin this year.
Work has been under way at the various schools to make sure the necessary technology is in place and that teachers know how to run the unfamiliar tests, some of which are taken on computers or laptops as opposed to traditional sheets of paper, she said.
“It is such a huge undertaking,” McGrath said.
Assistant Superintendent Nancy Duclos said students can expect “a lot of nuances in the test that go beyond practicality.”
“Sitting down at a computer to do an assessment is very different from a paper test,” Duclos said. “There’s an opportunity where kids are going to have to be able to read and they have to type. And in the math part, they have to be able to manipulate an online calculator.”
In one test, students will watch videos and wear ear buds to hear the audio, Duclos said. After the video ends, the test begins to measure comprehension, done in part by dragging boxes on the screen in an order that correlates to the video.
With the exception of Andover High School sophomores, the students who take the PARCC field test for math or English will be exempt from taking that subject’s MCAS assessments in May. That measure was put in place to avoid double-testing any students, Duclos said.
High school sophomores who take the math portion of the field test, however, will be required to retake MCAS math tests since they are a graduation requirement, she said.
Unlike the MCAS tests, Andover school officials won’t see the results of the PARCC field test since, in the end, “this is strictly a test of the test,” Duclos said.
“Pearson is going to want to know that third-graders struggled with X, Y and Z,” she said. “It isn’t a test of the teaching or whether a student can answer.”
The test hits Andover schools in two phases — a performance assessment is scheduled to take place between March 24 and April 11 and then an end-of-year assessment at the high school will occur from May 5 to June 5, Duclos said.
The three Andover schools that won’t be testing PARCC were excluded for a variety of reasons, McGrath said.
Bancroft Elementary does not have the necessary technology infrastructure; it hasn’t been updated in recent years since a new school is being built to open this fall. Sanborn Elementary’s student population was too small by state standards to qualify. Shawsheen School teaches students up to the second grade only; PARCC testing begins at third grade.
Certain parts of the PARCC test do allow for tablet PCs such as Apple iPads, but Andover has been excluded because it doesn’t have attachable keyboards for the tablets, according to McGrath.
Some school districts are doing more widespread testing than others because they are better equipped with technology, McGrath said. Revere and Burlington, for example, have been selected to run the full gamut of tests.
“Their full districts are doing PARCC and they won’t do MCAS. They’re testing every type of device,” McGrath said. “They can actually test every type of tech platform or medium (Pearson is) considering in one spot.”
PARCC is targeting full implementation of its test for the 2014-15 school year, according to its website. It could be implemented in Massachusetts in two years, according to school officials.