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Beyond filling in bubbles

The majority of Illinois schools soon will begin administering a new test to third- through eighth-graders and some high school students. This test, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessment, represents a significant shift, and the culmination of five years of statewide work, beginning with the adoption of the new Illinois Learning Standards in English language arts and mathematics in 2010. This is not the test we took in school. It’s not even similar to the test Illinois students took last year. It is more engaging, interactive and meaningful and will better prepare students for life and careers in the 21st century.

Change, especially large-scale systemic change such as this one, is never easy. We fully expect there will be challenges as we administer this test in the coming weeks. But that doesn’t mean we should change course or lower expectations. Instead, we ask that you consider learning more about this transition to a test that is about real life and real learning.

The PARCC assessment system is aligned to our new learning standards and aims to give educators, families and students a more accurate measure of how well Illinois public school children are performing, how they compare to peers across the nation, and whether they’re on track to succeed in college. This is important because many students in the United States, including Illinois, are arriving at college — after doing everything required to graduate from high school — without the knowledge and skills to succeed in a credit-bearing college course or an understanding of how their K-12 education will apply to a career. Anywhere from 20 percent to half of all students in postsecondary institutions must take one or more costly remedial courses their freshman year. This is a waste of both money and time and immediately puts these students at risk of not finishing college. The PARCC assessment will more closely monitor student learning so that any necessary remediation can take place as students progress through elementary and high school.

This year, students will spend about eight hours taking the PARCC exam over multiple sessions. That translates to far less than 1 percent of the average school year’s instructional time. That small investment in the state’s only required test will yield data for schools and families to help drive interventions and support for the remaining 99 percent of the school year and beyond. While much attention has been focused on this test, we would encourage all educators, parents and especially students to focus on that 99 percent. That is where real life, real learning, takes place.

The PARCC assessment is designed to reflect classroom experiences and challenges students to demonstrate what they’ve learned. About 111,000 Illinois students and 1 million students nationwide participated in the PARCC field-testing last spring. Some of the test takers said the PARCC assessment did not even seem like a test, but more like instruction. This is not a test that is passed with rote memorization and last-minute drills. It calls for critical thinking, problem-solving and the ability to synthesize information from various sources and provide evidence and reasoning when making an argument or solving a math equation. It measures writing skills at each grade level. These are exactly the skills higher education faculty members, who helped design the test, have told us students need to succeed in college. Rather than just asking students to select the correct answer and fill in the bubble of a multiple-choice test, the PARCC exam pushes students to apply their knowledge, thus better preparing them for higher education and a career. All students deserve the opportunity to demonstrate what they know and see how knowledge is applied to real-life situations. All adults should appreciate that we now have a better tool to diagnose learning problems and intervene on students’ behalf before they graduate from high school.

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