Shelby County Schools gets PARCC-ready, gives practice tests online

Taylor Matthews, an eighth-grader at Colonial Middle School, read an article titled,  “The Woman Called Moses,”  and stared at her computer screen for several minutes before hammering out on the keyboard–albeit slowly– an essay summarizing the life of Harriet Tubman.

For the next month, Taylor and thousands of children across Shelby County will practice taking tests online.  It’s in preparation for next school year when students, teachers and administrators will be partly evaluated by a new online-only standardized test known as Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test, or PARCC.

While the practice tests are being given over the next few weeks, administrators will be looking to make sure there are enough functional computers to go around and the broadband Internet doesn’t crash when masses of students upload their work all at once.  More crucially, teachers will work to make sure students can convey all of what they’ve learned to a computer module.

“There are a lot of moving parts,” said William White, Shelby County Schools’ chief of planning and accountability.

It’s not as easy as you think.  During the hour-long test administrators let a Chalkbeat reporter sit through at Colonial Middle School, a computer crashed and students with visibly no keyboard typing skills struggled to type out their thoughts before time was up.

Taylor wanted her essay on the Underground Railroad hero to be perfect.  After 15 minutes of quiet concentration she got flustered and deleted all of her work.

“I didn’t like it, so I started over,” Matthews said after class was dismissed.

Colonial Middle eighth grader Taylor Matthews took the practice writing assessment online last week. (Tajuana Cheshier/ Chalkbeat TN)

The PARCC assessment for English and language arts will test students’ ability to read two pieces of complex material and write two essays about them.  

PARCC tests in language arts and math won’t take place until spring 2015.  Science and social studies skills will still be tested using the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP — in other words, they’ll be given with the traditional number No. 2 pencil and paper.

A spokesperson with Tennessee’s Department of Education said 127,000  eighth and 11th graders took the writing assessment online last year and there were minor technical issues. Most of them were problems with uploaded work or students using the program incorrectly, officials said.

The state recently released a new optional online practice writing system that teachers can use with their students.

In Shelby County,  109 of the district’s schools will be randomly selected to participate in two state-monitored  field tests of the PARCC assessment.  The first testing period will be March 24 through April 11 and the second will be May 5 through May 16.  The tests do not count against the district, schools or teachers and results will not be returned.  Next year, teachers will receive value-added scores for the English language arts portion of PARCC. (Find out more about the PARCC exams here.)

Because value-added scores are based on a three-year rolling average, will only account for 11 to 12 percent of a teacher’s evaluation during 2014-15.

“We want students to take the test seriously, try their best, but don’t stress out,” White said.

PARCC impact on Tennessee Value-Added scores for teachers. (TN Dept. of Education )

Shelby County Schools will give students the annual TCAP this year beginning April 29 through May 5.

Although Colonial eighth-grade teacher Janie Warner expressed confidence in her students’ readiness for the writing assessment, she and other administrators noted that many students lack strong keyboarding skills. 

“Keyboarding skills are a must,” Warner said. “Students need to be able to write a five paragraph paper at least on the eighth grade level.  The goal is for them to be able to read, understand and write.”

Colonial Middle schooler takes practice writing assessment online last week. (Tajuana Cheshier/ Chalkbeat TN)

Students in Warner’s class were quiet during the practice writing assessment.  They focused on reading the lengthy article of Harriet Tubman’s work to free southern slaves using the Underground Railroad.  Warner only helped students who had technical problems with their computers since students must do their own work during the actual test.  Warner looked over some of the students’ shoulders, but didn’t offer them any suggestions.

In the practice writing assessment, the computer screen is divided horizontally – the article is displayed at the top of the screen and an area for students to type their essay is displayed on the bottom of the screen. Students are able to highlight from the source text in order to fact check or accurately quote the material.

Taylor used the feature when she wanted to confirm the year Tubman escaped slavery – which was 1849, according to the article.

Taylor liked her second draft much better, but just as she was going along, her MacBook laptop shut down.

Matthews sighed, stretched and raised her hand until Warner came to her aid.

Warner collected Matthews’ computer and the two resolved to start again the next day.

Luckily, the computer system saves students’ work.

Chalkbeat’s @TajuanaCheshier discussed the issue recently on WKNOFM.  Listen here

Colonial Middle school student takes the practice online writing assessment last week. (Tajuana Cheshier)