ISBE’s PARCC Primer Events Help Districts Prepare Families for State’s New Assessment This Spring

Family PARCC nights use sample test questions, practice tests and fun activities to familiarize parents with the new exam


SPRINGFIELD, IL — The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) and the Illinois Parent Teacher Association (PTA) teamed up to give families a firsthand glimpse of the state’s new assessment system for third through eighth graders and high school students. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), set to debut next month, is designed to demonstrate how well students are prepared for the next grade level and, ultimately, for success after high school.

ISBE staff developed all the resources necessary for schools to introduce families to the new assessment system during evening events called the “PARCC Primer.” and the “PARCC Primer: Technology and the Test.” The PARCC assessment aims to give families an earlier indication of college and career readiness, reversing the troubling trend of students across the United States landing in costly non-credit-bearing remedial classes once they get to college.

“The PARCC exam is the first statewide assessment that asks students to demonstrate their critical thinking, problem-solving and writing skills rather than simply filling in the bubble for a correct answer,” said State Superintendent of Education Christopher A. Koch. “To prepare students and families for this shift, the PARCC Primer events help schools provide a relaxed, welcoming environment where parents can try their hand at sample questions themselves and get a feel for what is expected of their students.”

The PARCC assessment, which replaces the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) and the Prairie State Achievement Examination (PSAE), measures how well students are achieving under Illinois’ new, more rigorous and internationally benchmarked learning standards in English language arts and math. The PARCC assessment focuses on the most important knowledge and skills that students need in these subjects and includes performance-based exercises and technology-enhanced features that better engage students and better measure their understanding, reasoning and ability to apply concepts. The assessment also includes writing – a critical skill for high school graduates, according to colleges, universities and employers. These features will ultimately produce more timely and meaningful data on whether students are on track for college and careers. The results will also help educators and parents monitor student progress and target instruction and appropriate interventions as needed.

This school year 75 percent of students will take the PARCC assessment online, with the ultimate goal of all Illinois students taking the test online within the next few years. The remaining students (25 percent) will take the same test in a paper-and-pencil format until they have the necessary technology and broadband infrastructure.

The PARCC Primer gives participants an opportunity to take computer-based sample test items, which offer a brief overview of the PARCC assessment and do not generate a score. Students and their families can not only see what the test questions will look like but also practice using the exam’s drag and drop, multiple select, calculator and text-highlighting features. Activities and videos are also provided to demonstrate current teaching and learning strategies in English language arts and math. The second format, “PARCC Primer: Technology and the Test,” provides more emphasis on giving families experience with the PARCC assessment’s technological features before having them take an actual practice test, which is lengthier than the sample items and provides test takers with a score.

More than 40 families attended a PARCC Primer event last month at Lindsay Elementary School in the Springfield School District 186.

“It was a great opportunity for the Lindsay parents to get a hands-on look at the PARCC sample assessment. By working with their student, parents also had a chance to see the critical thinking pieces as well as the computer formatting,” said Lindsay Principal Joby Crum “This first year will be a challenge for all of us as it will be a new large-scale assessment using a new format, but the PARCC Primer helped us better prepare both students and families for the transition.”

In order to make planning easy for schools, ISBE has made all of the necessary instructions and documents for hosting each PARCC Primer event available on its website. Documents for educators are provided for each event and include an invitation letter that can be tailored for their individual school communities. Handouts for parents are also provided in Spanish so as many families as possible have access to up-to-date information about the PARCC assessment.

Starting in March, students will take the PARCC summative assessment in two parts to allow enough time to complete the exam and to measure different kinds of knowledge and skills. The first part is the Performance-Based Assessment (PBA), which will be given when about 75 percent of instruction is completed. The PBA portion features more extended tasks and writing exercises. The second part is the End-of-Year (EOY) assessment, which is given when approximately 90 percent of instruction is completed. The EOY is shorter than the PBA and asks students to demonstrate their skills and knowledge by answering computer-based, machine-scorable questions. Together, these two parts emphasize rigor, depth and application of knowledge, not just rote memorization.

“In life, there are no multiple-choice answers. You must use your own knowledge and draw information from other sources to construct your own answers,” said Jeff Nellhaus, PARCC’s chief of assessment. “The PARCC assessment reflects this real-world experience for students and measures their ability to demonstrate these vital skills.”

The technology-enhanced questions and writing component of the PARCC assessment contribute to slightly more testing time for students than the ISAT and PSAE. Overall test times fluctuate depending on grade level, but the PARCC assessment allots an average of eight to 10 hours, extended over several days and two separate testing administrations, one in March and one in May. Most students finished earlier than the allotted time during the PARCC assessment field test in March 2014. Students are expected to spend nearly 8 hours on the PARCC exams, depending on grade level.  The PARCC exam will account for less than 1 percent of the average amount of instructional time this school year and is the only required assessment in Illinois.

The PARCC assessment combines the EOY results with the PBA results to produce a student’s summative assessment score. These results will be available to families this fall. This year’s results will provide a baseline in order to measure growth by students, schools and districts in the future. This first year of data will also be used to set cut scores that determine the performance levels at which students can be deemed “college and career ready.” Illinois students’ performance results can be compared directly with their peers across the nation.