Students at Uncommon School’s North Star Academy Vailsburg Elementary attended a pep rally Friday, but it wasn’t for an upcoming game. Instead, they were cheering and encouraging each other to excel on the PARCC exam next week.

Students filled the gym of the West Ward charter school dressed up as superheroes, donning capes and masks as their principal and teachers lavished positive praise and encouragement on them in preparation for a week of test taking.

“We held this pep rally because our students matter and they should never question their potential,” said Yasmin Vargas, the principal. “They have to believe and know they can do anything. This is a reminder.”

Sign Up for E-News

The PARCC exam, an end-of-year assessment of how well students grasped the lessons of the common core curriculum, replaced the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJASK) and High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) in the 2014-15 school year.

The use of the PARCC exam has been controversial because the test is considerably more rigorous than New Jersey’s previous assessments. In 2015, the New Jersey Education Association, the statewide teacher’s union, launched a campaign criticizing PARCC.

But North Star Academy, along with other high-performing schools, have embraced the tests as an accurate measure of students’ college and career readiness. North Star, which serves 4,600 students in Newark in grades K through 12, has outperformed students in wealthier suburban districts.

Vargas said students are not taught to the test. Rather, all teachers at Uncommon Schools are highly trained, which helps them prepare students for the types of rigorous questions asked on the PARCC exam.

“The PARCC exam is no different than what they see every single day,” Vargas said. “Our curriculum is rigorous,  challenging, and joyous. For our students to face something like the PARCC test is just another example of what they already know how to do.”

During the pep rally, Vargas and teachers told students they had grit, optimism, stamina, confidence and knowledge – all traits that they would need to succeed on PARCC. Students cheered loudly each time they were praised for their academic prowess.

Parents were also invited to the rally and some brought homemade signs encouraging their children.

“I am so happy to be here, North Star is the best school here in Newark, N.J.,” said Shakirah Plumb, whose daughter, Makaylah Harris, is in fourth grade. “The students definitely need this rally so they know their parents support them and the community is behind them and they can do their best.”

Lorna Taylor, whose son, Jeremiah, is in fourth grade, said she came to show her support. 

“The rally was awesome because it allows the kids to get pumped up,” said Taylor, who is a teacher and supports the PARCC exam. “It’s good exposure for him to take the test because eventually he’s going to have to take a test to get into college. Getting test taking experience is a good thing for him.”