By Christian Wade
---- — BOSTON — Massachusetts schools will test-drive a new standardized exam, and administrators say they are concerned about the technology demands of the mostly computer-based tests.
Tens of thousands of students will participate in the first trial of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC. State education officials say the test, designed as part of a shift to national education standards known as the Common Core, eventually could replace MCAS, a hallmark of standardized tests in the Bay State for more than 15 years.
Nearly two-thirds of the state’s public schools will take part in the PARCC trial that gets underway this week. Locally, Newburyport, Amesbury, Pentucket Regional School District, and Triton Regional High School are slated to take the test.
Newburyport is one of a few cities in the state using only the online test. It will be given on desktop computers to 100 students in the 5th, 7th and ninth grades beginning next week.
“It was designed as an online test, so you don’t want to give the kids a paper test because then you lose all the benefits of the online component,” said Angela Bik, Newburyport’s assistant superintendent. “But we also see this as a test of our infrastructure to see if it can handle it.”
Not all districts have enough computers or sufficient Internet connectivity to give the online exam. Instead, many will give the test to students the old-fashioned way, with paper and pencil.
“It’s a big problem, and we’ve made that known to the state,” said Peabody Schools Superintendent Joseph Mastrocola. Students at four elementary schools in Peabody, as well as J. Henry Higgins Middle School and Peabody Veterans Memorial High School, will take the exam on paper.
“The issue isn’t as much computers as it is having bandwidth for large chunks of real-time data,”Mastrocola said.
A spokesman for Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which is overseeing the field tests, said the state is aware of the technological divide between districts giving the test online and those administering a paper version. The state is working on finding or providing money for technology upgrades, said spokesman J.C. Considine.
“We’re moving towards a more digital learning environment, and online testing is a key part of this,” said Considine. “But we realize there’s going to be some capacity issues.”
A bond bill, recently approved by the state House of Representatives and headed for the Senate, would provide more than $38 million for school districts to expand broadband Internet capacity.
Massachusetts schools are also be eligible for the Federal Communications Commission’s E-Rate Program. The FCC is expected to pump an extra $2 billion into the program to provide more high-speed broadband access for schools over the next two years.
The PARCC testing system was developed by a consortium of more than a dozen states including Massachusetts and will be taken in two parts over the next four months. The first part assesses writing skills and proficiency on math problems, while the second part will test reading comprehension and math concepts. Results don’t count and won’t be released to parents or the schools.
School districts that don’t participate in the trial will have access to sample tests. The state plans to expand the field-testing to other districts in the 2014-15 school year. All told, half of the state’s public school students will take the new exam. In fall 2015, the state Board of Education will decide whether to replace MCAS with the PARCC assessments.
Considine said the state is taking a cautious approach, devoting two years to evaluating the exams, while other states are only doing a one-year test run.
“If you’re manufacturing automobiles, you don’t put a new car on the road without testing it thoroughly,” he said. “The last thing we want is for the state to adopt a new test and the first time a kid has to take it is when it counts.”
The new test is part of a shift to national educational benchmarks, known as the Common Core, which emphasize critical thinking, reasoning and problem solving. The standards are intended to prepare students for the demands of college and the workplace, state education officials said.
The practice exam comes just as many students in grades 3 to 8 – as well as 10th graders – finish the annual MCAS exam.
The new test will be given to students through the 11th grade in math and English language arts. Even if the state adopts the new PARCC tests, it may continue to use the MCAS science exam.
Tenth-graders will continue to take the MCAS, which they must pass to get a diploma, until the state Board of Education decides to replace it.
Bik, from Newburyport, said she understands that students taking both MCAS and PARCC tests this year have a lot on their plates.
“From a purely educational perspective, I would have preferred not have to do this amount of testing at one time,” she said. “But if this is the test that the state adopts, we’ll be prepared.”