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Putting PARCC — the new standardized exam — to the test

Maybe you’ve been following the fight over PARCC — a new standardized test Illinois public schoolchildren are set to take this spring.

Parents who are trying to postpone it, saying it’s not ready for children, urged me to try it myself. Then-state superintendent Christopher Koch, who welcomes PARCC, did the same: “Go online and take the sample tests. Take third-grade tests in reading or math. I did fine on the third grade.”

When I was in grade school, I was pretty good at these tests. But the PARCC test is supposed to be tough. The acronym stands for Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

It’s not a fill-in-the-bubble test like the ISAT. It asks kids to show their work, write short essays, figure out the math that word problems require and then solve that problem. There’s a paper-and-pencil version for districts that don’t have enough computers, tablets or bandwidth, but the majority of kids are expected to take the online computerized version.

Some districts, including CPS, are protesting PARCC, saying that they don’t have the technology to deal with it.

I clicked on English/Language Arts and Math sample questions for grades three to five. I chose that simply because it was the first one there. Also because it would be extra humiliating to blow a third-grade exam.

Fail No. 1: The samples wouldn’t open in Chrome. On to a Safari browser.

ELAXX started off fine. I can read short stories and deduce the meanings of words from context. I can pull out the details from numbered paragraphs that support my answer.

I write for a living, after all.

Then this question popped up: “Which statement best expresses one of the themes in the story?”

Wait. While the story — about a cricket dispatching his mosquito cousin to deal with a bothersome cougar — taught option B (“Everyone has strengths”) it also taught option C (“Don’t be afraid of others”).

So which is it? How can you say which idea best expresses one of the themes in the story when several of the themes are choices?

The whole second reading passage was missing because the rights to use it hadn’t been finalized. There were fewer questions to answer, but when it came time to write an essay about a main character from each of the two reading samples, I couldn’t.

The third passage also came with ambiguous questions, and PARCC builds questions on top of previous questions, so if I chose the wrong theme, I’d end up with the wrong details as well.

Online navigation also was tricky. I kept slipping the drag-and-drop box and wasted valuable time scrolling up and down that third long passage.

On to math. Reverse division into multiplication? Check. If Elsa gets five beads and Damian gets eight more than her and Trish gets four times as many beads as Damian, show how many each child has. No problem, as long as students get some scrap paper and a pencil to work out the arithmetic the long way, as I did.

PARCC also wanted me to calculate the number of tiles a teacher has to put on a wall if she combines the 18 her one class made, with the 14 and 16 tiles other classes made, then to plot them all on a 10-by-10 wall by clicking on squares to fill them in.

Then I was supposed to write an equation in a text box showing how to solve for the number of columns needed if 56 tiles were laid out in rows of seven. A little box on the side contained an array of math symbols to click on.

No dice. When I typed, it didn’t show up in the text box. When I clicked on the symbols, they didn’t move over. I tried typing numbers, clicking on the symbols, typing letters. None of it worked. I flagged the question and moved on.

At the end, I learned I could review the question and try it again.

So how did I do? Am I proficient in third-grade math and English?

Well, the math test stalled while I was taking that second look. And refreshing the browser after a good minute crashed the whole thing.

As I sat there, my mind flashed back to my third-grade self. She was studious and super-serious. She followed classroom rules and kept quiet in class and listened to the teacher. Her report cards usually had “conscientious” written in the comments. The minute the teacher announced a spelling bee, she always had to pee all of a sudden — spelling bees were way too nerve-wracking.

I feared how she would have handled a test crashing. Or an ambiguous question. Or two possible answers. I’m guessing not so well, whether or not the teacher assured her it wouldn’t count for her grades. PARCC won’t affect GPA, but pretty soon it will count for a school’s ratings and teacher evaluations.

The PARCC samples I tried aren’t graded, so I can’t know if my brain worked the way PARCC intended.

Turns out with a lot more clicking on the website, you can find other online practice tests that come with answer keys for all but the essay answers.

I guess I could have spent more time preparing to take the sample: testing the browser, using the online tutorial, reading more about PARCC’s specific tools.

But who can spare time away from essential work to learn all that?