LIVINGSTON, NJ – The results of the first comparative year-over-year data on Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) testing for Livingston Public Schools (LPS) are in and were shared in a presentation given by Coordinator of Testing, Data Assessment and Accountability, Natalie Topylko, at the Livingston Board of Education (LBOE) workshop meeting this week. 

In the inaugural year of testing, PARCC results weren’t available until January. This year, results were received as summer came to a close and, having already been analyzed, will give educators the useful information they need to take greater advantage throughout the course of the school year. 

Reminding attendees of PARCC’s ultimate goal, which is to prepare students—from the start of their educational careers through high school—for college, work and life as they’ll experience it in the 21st century, Topylko described how the fundamentals of PARCC are meant to best prepare students to be critical and discerning thinkers in all aspects of their lives. 

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Both in the areas of English Language Arts and Literacy (ELA/L) and Mathematics, the PARCC assessment is designed to evaluate mastery of critical thinking. The idea is that school curriculum coupled with PARCC testing will result in a new era of high school graduates who are adept at evaluating disparate types of information pertaining to a single topic, utilizing the most valuable information, calling upon supporting evidence, and having the ability to describe the unique problem-solving processes that helped the student arrive at a particular solution to a real-life problem.

Keeping in step with New Jersey’s move toward preparing the state’s schools to soon replace assessment tools previously used with PARCC, alone, PARCC testing was first implemented in LPS in 2015. Last year, ELA/L PARCC was taken by students in grades 3-11 and students in grades 3-8 took the Mathematics PARCC assessment. Students in grades 9-11 took more advanced Mathematics PARCC testing in the areas of Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II.

Students were scored using five performance levels and must receive a score of 4 (“met expectations”) or 5 (“exceeded expectations”) to meet the state’s requirements.

Although to date participation in PARCC testing has been voluntary, the state is moving toward adopting PARCC as a mandatory measurement in the near future.  With that in mind, the state’s Department of Education (DOE) indicated that LPS would benefit from being early adopters and demonstrating greater participation as soon as possible in order to stay ahead of the curve. 

With that in mind, the school district was effectively able to increase participation from last year to this by an average of 18.7 percent in grades 3-8 and an increase of 24 percent for the advanced math and English assessments – in some cases, bringing up participation levels as much as 42 percent over 2014-2015 participation rates. 

This affords our educators the opportunity to make more meaningful use of the results in several areas where participation hovers in the ninetieth percentile.  Although participation was up across the board, those testing in areas of Geometry, Algebra II, English II, and English III (which, at their high, range from 27-percent to 61-percent participation) still require greater participation in order to draw actionable conclusions.

When comparing the group of those who received scores of 4 or 5 in 2014-15 against those who received these scores in 2015-16, performance remained relatively flat, with a few dips seen at the upper grade levels 8-11 (split nearly evenly between ELA/L with drops of 15-16 percent and math, and Algebras I and II, with drops of between 8 percent and 18 percent—though only in select grade levels in the 8-11 grade range). 

While the role of PARCC test refusal has played a part in impacting these statistics, if the DOE makes no further changes, PARCC testing will become mandatory for current 8th graders (and those who follow), starting next year, and will be a mandatory requirement for high school graduation.

“Everything has to be looked at in a context based on state averages vs. where we are,” said LBOE President Ronnie Spring. “Other than a few areas, we far exceeded the state averages for meeting and exceeding expectations in many areas.”

In response to the PARCC data that’s come back, teachers have been making adjustments to curriculum guides to offer more explicit instruction, balancing out things like exposure to fiction vs. non-fiction, integrating writing and reading units more closely, and procuring instructional items such as new elementary math text books to set the stage for learning and testing success. 

Educators and supervisors are also paying closer attention to overarching scope and sequence structure, such as teaching things in a proper order and focusing in on key concepts echoed in the PARCC assessment such as math reasoning and modeling.

“This is not work that happens quickly, this data analysis,” said Topylko. “Teachers and supervisors have been revamping curriculum guides and doing a lot of analysis to see what the pathway through which students are moving as they progress from middle to high school is and what they can do to improve their own skills. They are sharing websites, resources and strategies so that the transition is a smooth one for our kids.”

Superintendent of Schools Christina Steffner noted that there will be no alternative assessments for the current 8th graders, such as the ACT, PSATs, and SATs that this year’s students can opt to use as additional measures of their abilities. 

“The AP is moving to this kind of test; the SATs are moving to this kind of test; the PSATs are moving to this format,” she said. “So if we don’t take this seriously, we can’t identify the gaps. We don’t know if it’s curricular, if we’re missing the mark on what we’re teaching them—there is a huge disconnect. The bottom line is that it’s the law right now.”

There are many different models of usage being discussed at the state department level, such as future students being required to pass one part of ELA/L and one part of math or as many as three levels of both and the PARCC being used as a college placement test. 

“While they figure it out, we need to offer our students support and let them know that, while this isn’t the ‘be all-end all,’ we need them to do their best,” said Steffner. “We don’t have to stress them out and make them crazy – just explain how PARCC testing helps us help them.”