PARCC Leads N.J. Schools to Cancel Midterms, Finals.

Adam Clark | The Star-Ledger

Students at some New Jersey high schools can rest easy this winter without having to worry about midterm exams.

But spring will bring an even bigger challenge: The new state standardized test that promises to consume a lot of classroom prep time.

A growing number of schools are canceling traditional exams to regain instructional time they say is being lost to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, the state’s new standardized assessment to be administered this spring.

Livingston High School, among other schools, 
has scrapped midterms. Millburn students wont have to take finals. And Glen Ridge is doing away with both.

“PARCC is taking too many days, all of which results in the loss of instructional time,” said James O’Neill, superintendent of Livingston Township School District.

New Jersey’s previous state assessment test for high school students, the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA), was administered only once and only to 11th-graders, superintendents said.

The new computerized test, aligned to Common Core standards,
 will be given twice, once in March and once in May, to all students in grades 3-11. High school students are likely to finish the tests in about seven or eight hours, according to the state, but the testing periods are spread out across several school days.

“All of the sudden we have injected more testing into the high school schedule,” said James Crisfield, superintendent of Millburn Township School District. “We have a lot of PARCC when we used to have a little bit of HSPA.”

In many high schools, midterms and finals were traditionally administered over the course of four or five days and teachers spent several class periods reviewing during the week before the exam. With the introduction of PARCC, Millburn parents worried students would be spending too much time in testing or test-prep, Crisfield said.

“Frankly, I was very sympathetic to those concerns,” he said.

The value of midterms

The impact of eliminating midterms and finals is a mixed bag, said John Mucciolo superintendent of Glen Ridge School District.

If approached correctly, midterms allow students to draw connections between seemingly unrelated lessons they have learned in class, Mucciolo said. But all too often students are simply cramming, he said.

Glen Ridge High School has seventh and eight grade students, who also will take PARCC exams, and the additional testing time across five grade levels worried both faculty and administration, Mucciolo said.

“Sometimes we need to examine our assumptions,” he said of the value of midterms. “The PARCC testing has prompted us to do this.”

Reducing test anxiety created by midterms and finals will be beneficial for students, said Maureen Connolly, an assistant professor of education at The College of New Jersey.

Though the tests have been a staple of a high school education, they are losing value as schools focus more on what skills students need after graduation, she said.

“Do you do something that is assessing what you have been doing for the past four months in your job?” Connolly said. “What would be the equivalent of (a midterm) in life outside of school?”

Even before PARCC, some teachers believed that midterms and finals took away too much instructional time, said Anthony Rosamilia president of both the Essex County and Livingston education associations.

But Rosamilia, speaking only on his own behalf, said he is skeptical about eliminating the teacher-designed tests.

The PARCC tests are significant because they are high-stakes assessments for school districts and certain teachers, whose evaluations are partially based on their students’ performance. But unlike a midterm, teachers won’t see PARCC results in time to give students meaningful feedback, Rosamilia, a history teacher, said.

“If a student gets a certain grade on a midterm we can give accurate information to parents and to this student about where they are,” Rosamilia said.

Replacing traditional tests

Schools that eliminate a diagnostic test, like a midterm or final, should replace it with another method of analyzing student learning, said Steve Wollmer, spokesperson for the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

That’s not always easy, some educators said.

Bernards Township School District eliminated midterms and finals a few years ago in an attempt to maximize instructional time, Superintendent Nick Markarian said. 

It replaced those tests with quarterly exams, given on days when students had their seven other classes for abbreviated 20-minute periods. The stress of a special test in the midst of regular classes was distracting for students, Markarian said.

“If you were meeting for 20 minutes with seven of your classes and then in your eighth class you had a quarterly exam, how much are you really focusing on regular classes?” Markarian said.

Bernards eliminated the quarterlies this year.

Verona High School, which is abandoning midterms, won’t replace them with new smaller tests, said Charles Miller, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction.

Instead, the school has focused on bolstering its unit tests by adding questions that have more than one answer or require students to cite evidence to support their answer. Those tests should push students well beyond traditional recall in the way midterms have in the past, Miller said.

The New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association believes more schools will consider changes to midterms and finals in the wake of the PARCC exams, spokesperson Dan Higgins said. School leaders should have meaningful conversations with parents and community members to work out the best local approach, he added. 

State and local tests must work together in a smart, systematic way to give teachers and parents the best possible feedback, said Michael Yaple, a spokesperson for the Department of Education.

“As educators discover the value of the new PARCC assessments, they may find it makes sense to rely less on other tests that are used locally,” Yaple said. 

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