PARCC: How a High Tech Test Will Hinder Tech in Schools

Welcome to 2015, the first year of the high tech Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests, one of two national exams aligned to the Common Core standards. But, while these tests will take place entirely online, they’ll effectively set technology back in schools by the time these tests are first administered in March and May of this year.

Technology leaders in schools understand the benefits of technology in teaching and learning. A student knowing their way around a computer and knowing how to create things with it is as integral a part of college and career readiness as any other type of literacy. Every student today needs a computer simply to do their job of being a student. Students get the most from their learning experience and become the most prepared for their future when they can use computers to create new media and as resources in taking on authentic projects through which they drive their own learning experience. But, in some ways, PARCC is working against its own mission, college and career readiness, due to the inauthenticity of the testing environment and the sheer amount of time that computers won’t be used for more authentic tasks.

Schools are now preparing their systems so that millions of students from the twelve remaining PARCC participating states can take these online exams. Each student will take just a few tests in English Language Arts and Mathematics and each test will take about an hour to complete. But, schools will likely need every hardware resource they have on hand to carry out the online testing. Preparing hardware entails putting almost every computer available in a school in a locked-down kiosk state so that students cannot access the normal parts of the computer during the exam. PARCC security specifications block access to the web and prevent certain functionality such as taking screenshots so that the tests can be kept more secure and more valid. This is despite the fact that every good educator knows that any test that can be beat by Googling an answer just isn’t a genuine test.

While schools have known the hardware needs and expectations for a while now, few have actually added any hardware to accomplish the task of the PARCC testing. From a practical standpoint, this means that ALL of a school’s technology hardware resources may be dedicated solely to this testing for significant amounts of time. Most schools will dedicate their computer labs and carts to testing for weeks or months. Many schools will need to reserve every single lab, laptop, notebook, and tablet in the entire school for up to twenty-five to thirty percent of the school year just so that they can administer the assessments. Staff will need time before each administration to configure and test their technologies for use with the PARCC infrastructure and after each test to return things to their normal state. This all amounts to time that computers won’t be used as they’re best used in schools, as tools that can be used for far more creative tasks.

PARCC has also done a dubious job in how they’ve presented their “sophisticated” online testing environment. They’ve renamed normal computer functions that nearly every student understands by the time they reach kindergarten to ones that sound far more intimidating. Each student will need to know how to use test taking features like the Answer Eliminator (point and click on a button to eliminate an answer), Equation Editor (allows for math notation like superscript), Text Extraction (highlighting), and Solution Set Graphing (clicking points on a graph). To that end, many schools have added more lessons in how to use these and other fancy sounding features in place of other computer instruction.

Some schools have even reintroduced programs that stress using what will soon be legacy tools like a computer mouse and hard wired keyboards. Some districts are buying mice for devices that don’t normally use a mouse as an input device for fear of placing some students at a disadvantage, essentially wasting money on old technology. Instead of using computers as the creative and transformative tools they can be, schools are returning to the skill and drill ways of teaching simple input methods. Again, students will be getting the short end of the stick as they spend more time learning how to use the fancy-sounding PARCC features and outmoded skills, and less time learning things like coding and digital citizenship.

So, while each student may only take a few hours to complete the exams, the repurposing of entire fleets of computers and spending time learning superfluous proficiencies will result in a reversal of what has taken years to realize, that computers are powerful tools necessary in the creation of authentic student projects. PARCC was supposed to be a different kind of test, one that skill and drill won’t help. But, at the end of these tests, students will have honed obsolete skills and students will not have created anything…except answers to a test.


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