As high school juniors across Illinois prepare to take the SAT exam next April, a local tutoring group is helping school leaders prepare for a shift away from the maligned Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test, known more commonly as PARCC.
After two years of criticism and “sobering” results, the Illinois State Board of Education announced in July that beginning next year, high schoolers will no longer be required to take the PARCC assessment, which instead will be swapped out for the more standard SAT exam.
In preparation for this change, Matthew Pietrafetta and Academic Approach – a Chicago-based tutoring company he founded in 2001 – are working with local public, private and charter school principals to better prepare their students for the move.
“This transition is a really unique opportunity for principals to get together and think about instructional shifts that will be required to prepare for the new test,” Pietrafetta said. “But also it’s been a great time, and district leadership has been so supportive of saying, ‘Hey let’s support principals to say, what can we do better?’”
Pietrafetta said his group – which also has offices on the North Shore and in New York and Boston – has organized roundtable discussions and professional development sessions for principals to discuss the change.
Last month, ISBE released preliminary results from the state’s second wave of PARCC testing conducted earlier this year. The results were not particularly encouraging.
Fewer than one-third of K-12 students met proficiency standards in math and English language arts, with significant drop-offs seen between eighth graders and high schoolers. After seeing those results, State Superintendent of Education Tony Smith told reporters there remains “considerable distance to travel” to get Illinois students college- and career-ready.
But questions have arisen over just how seriously high school students were taking the PARCC assessment. Pietrafetta said it’s unclear exactly what the exam offered to those who took it – PARCC tests college preparedness, but unlike the SAT, it doesn’t count as a collegiate entrance exam – making it more difficult to get students invested in their results.
“The relevance of the SAT is it can be a ticket for a student into college. It’s not just any old test to sit for, and so what’s great about that is you can get buy-in from students,” he said. “You can build purpose around that and you can build a whole school culture around an assessment that has rigor and relevance. And not all assessments have (those).”
Both the PARCC and the SAT test student’s knowledge in reading and math – the latter also includes an optional writing portion – but Pietrafetta believes the SAT aligns better with Illinois’ high school curriculum and focuses more acutely on skills and information students need to succeed post-graduation.
“If you look at the reading section of the SAT now, you’re going to see primary source passages from Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Thomas Paine – something that your social studies teachers actually are teaching in school – a Frederick Douglass text," he said. “They’re hard as heck to read, that’s not easy reading, but that’s what you have to read in order to go to college.”
The SAT underwent a facelift earlier this year, putting a “focus on the knowledge, skills, and understandings" necessary for college and career readiness. The revamped test also returns the top possible score back to 1600, eliminates penalties for wrong answers and increases time available across each section.
Pietrafetta believes that last part is key to ensuring test results provide an accurate snapshot of what students actually know. The exam can also make it easier to track student proficiencies from year-to-year by comparing PSAT and SAT results.
Once that information is in hand, he hopes it can be used to plan classes, set schoolwide priorities, and reteach and reassess students to build a new infrastructure around data-driven instruction.
“Everything is changing,” he said, “so why not question some age-old assumptions and try to do better for students and see if we can use this as an opportunity?”
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