Community Colleges to Use Controversial PARCC Tests for Student Placement

Hannan Adely | The Record

In New Jersey’s march to roll out new academic standards and testing in public schools, some of the strongest and most vocal support has come from the state’s colleges and universities.

Now, in the latest measure of faith in the exams, the council of 19 community college presidents announced that they plan to use scores on the new tests for student placement next year. It will be the first time the tests have consequences for students.

“These scores will be a valuable tool for colleges in our work to help high school students avoid remediation and begin study in college-level courses,” the New Jersey Council of County Colleges said in a joint statement Monday.

By embracing the tests — which are designed to measure students’ knowledge of the more rigorous standards — college officials are at odds with many parents who have protested their use in schools and kept their children out of the exams. But higher education officials say the new system will better prepare students for college and prevent many of them from having to take remedial classes.

The tests have also been criticized by teachers and the state teachers union because students’ grades on the exams are considered in evaluating teachers.

The community college presidents also say high school students, school districts and colleges will save money by substituting the tests, known as PARCC, for the Accuplacer, which now determines knowledge in math, reading and writing in preparation for college-level courses. Accuplacer will still be available as an option for those students who don’t take PARCC.

The college presidents said they will compare 11th grade scores on PARCC with those on exams like Accuplacer, SAT and ACT this year to see if they match up in determining who is college-ready. If the scores are as reliable as expected, colleges plan to use the new tests to measure college readiness and determine student class placement in 2016.

Students will not be turned away from community colleges because of low scores but would have to take remedial classes if they don’t do well enough on the test.

But to graduate from high school, students will not need to perform well on the PARCC until 2019. The tests will not be used to keep students who are taking the test — those in Grades 3 to 11 — from advancing to the next grade.

The standards and testing system is better than what is now in place at most schools, said Raymond Yannuzzi, chairman of the New Jersey Community College Presidents. They offer a better program of non-fiction reading, writing across subjects, and math concepts that can help students who enter college or vocational trades, he said.

In 2010, New Jersey adopted the standards, which are designed to be more challenging and to encourage critical thinking. Education officials said the tests will provide more timely and detailed information on students’ academic progress and help disadvantaged students catch up to wealthier peers.

College officials hope that by raising standards, fewer high school seniors and incoming college freshmen will be forced to take classes and “boot camps” to prepare them for college-level work. Those classes cost money and discourage some from starting or completing college.

“Half or slightly more than half of Camden County students — some of them who have been out of high school for a while — need work in reading, writing and math before they take college credit courses,” said Yannuzzi, who is president of Camden County College. “I don’t think it means they’re less capable, but I think they have less exposure to what they need” to succeed.

Yannuzzi and other college officials have been at the forefront of the state’s education reforms, touting their usefulness and helping to craft questions on the new exams. In November, the New Jersey Presidents’ Council, which represents all public and private colleges and universities in the state, voted unanimously to endorse the standards, which are known as the Common Core.

But the tests, required for the first time this year, have created an uproar among parents. Critics say the tests pull too much time and resources away from the classroom, diminish local control of schools and are stressful for students. Some families, particularly in affluent parts of the state, have refused to allow their children to take the test.

Yannuzzi said he understands some of the criticisms, such as the use of the test to evaluate teachers, the difficulty scheduling the tests and the fear that students who are not savvy about technology will have difficulty taking the tests by computer. He believes those concerns will fade as New Jersey phases out other exams and teachers grow more comfortable with testing changes. 

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