Education Secretary Arne Duncan said  that states can apply for extra time before they use student test scores to judge teachers’ performance. Duncan’s decision acknowledges concerns by teachers’ unions and others that it’s too early to make teacher personnel decisions based on how well students do on new assessments developed under the Common Core standards that will be used in much of the country this school year. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File photo)

Superintendent Trisha Kocanda of Winnetka Public Schools in Illinois has written what could be called a “warning” letter to parents, community members and district staff about the PARCC Common Core exam that students in the state will be taking in March and May.  She writes in part:

As we learn more about the assessment, we grow wary. We are concerned about the amount of instructional time it will displace, the impact this will have on students, and the usefulness of the results.

The PARCC test was created by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, one of two federally funded multistate consortia tasked with creating new Common Core tests with some $360 million in federal funds. (The other is the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.) In 2010, PARCC had 26 member states, but it has suffered major defections since then, with fewer than a dozen states now committed to using the PARCC exam this year. Mississippi pulled out this month, and Chicago Public Schools, the third-largest system in the country, recently decided to buck a state mandate to give the PARCC to all of its students this school year.

Winnetka, just north of Chicago, is one of the most affluent communities in the country. The Winnetka Public Schools district Web site says that the system has “led the nation in progressive education and served as model for educators who value the development of the whole child.” There are about 2,000 students in the system’s schools, most of whom attend nationally recognized New Trier Township High School.

Kocanda’s letter on PARCC discusses how much instructional time is being lost because of the test, notes that the test will make some students unnecessarily nervous and questions how useful the test will be to teachers and students. Here’s the letter she wrote, which appeared in this month’s edition of the Winnetka Wire, the school district’s monthly newsletter:

Superintendent’s Message

Dear Community Members, Parents, and Staff:

There is no doubt that this is an interesting era in public education. I am hopeful that the pendulum will swing back toward center and bring a more balanced approach to improving equity and accountability for school systems. Illinois is currently struggling to find that balance.

For instance, there has been much chatter recently regarding the new state mandated PARCC standardized assessment. These tests, which are replacing the ISAT, will be administered in our District for the first time in March and again in May. As we learn more about the assessment, we grow wary. We are concerned about the amount of instructional time it will displace, the impact this will have on students, and the usefulness of the results.

Our administrative team has diligently worked to stay up-to-date on the PARCC assessment and is committed to sharing key information with our parents and staff. Below is a summary of key PARCC facts that have prompted many of our concerns:

Testing Time:
The PARCC testing experience will take approximately 13-14 hours for students in grades 3-8. By contrast, the ISAT took no more than seven hours to administer.

Test Format:
The test is computer-based and requires students to manage multiple screens, prompts, and tools while typing their responses in a timed situation. By contrast, STAR, a local assessment tool already in place, is taken online but requires a single response on a single screen. The difference in complexity is vast for students.

Instructional Impact:
1) Because only one test unit will be administered per day, this means students will be taking the test over a two-week time period. This results in a number of interrupted instructional days for our children.
2) Although we will not be teaching new content for the test, students will need to familiarize themselves with the new online testing experience and complexities. We estimate that this introduction to the test will take approximately two to three hours.
3) The test will be completed in the computer labs. Most regularly scheduled classes will not take place in these learning spaces for approximately six weeks this spring.

Testing Stress:
Every student will react to the test in a unique way. We anticipate that the length of the test, the excessive rigor, and the extended change to routine will be uncomfortable for some or many of our students.

Speed of Implementation:
PARCC is being administered statewide after a one-year pilot, and closely on the heels of the Common Core State Standards implementation. Materials, including instructions for proctors, sample questions, and technical requirements, are still being revised. Since the preparation window is relatively short, test logistics have been the primary focus of the tech staff, the administrative team, and building principals since late fall.

We recognize the need for assessments and accountability. District 36 is committed to complying with State mandates, including the PARCC. However, we believe that this test continues the over-emphasis on standardized assessments as evaluation tools for students and schools. Our concerns are not unique. In 2010, 26 states committed to using PARCC. Today only 10 states, including Illinois, remain in the consortium.

It is important that we stay informed and understand the impact of reform on our students. We often share stories about District driven goals and initiatives. I believe it is equally important to shed light on State requirements that influence local decisions and ultimately our students’ experiences.

Sincerely,
Trisha Kocanda
Superintendent

(Correction: A previous version incorrectly said all Winnetka students attend New Trier High School. Most of them do; some go to other schools.)