PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Let the testing begin.

Beginning next week, public school students from across Rhode Island will begin taking the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam, a new standardized test that is aligned with the Common Core State Standards.

So what should you know about the PARCC? Here’s an overview.

1. It’s not NECAP.

For the first time in nine years, public school students in Rhode Island will not take the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) exam, the standardized reading and mathematics assessments that were also administered in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine (though students will continue to take NECAP science test). The PARCC is considered more aligned with the Common Core State Standards (see more below), but one of the most glaring differences between the old test and the new test is when they’re given. Students in grades 3-8 and 11 took the NECAP each October, which led some to believe that summer vacation learning loss led to artificially low scores. Students in grades 3-8 and in high school – most 9th and 10th grade students, as well as some 11th graders – will take the first part of the PARCC between March 16 and April 10 and the end-of-year assessments will be administered between May 1 and June 4. For more, watch the below YouTube video made by Lori McEwen, Providence’s chief of instruction, leadership and equity:

2. It is computer-based.

While there is an option to take a paper version of the PARCC, the majority of students will take the test on computers – a significant shift from previous standardized exams. The test focuses on mathematics and English Language Arts (ELA) and will require students to use critical thinking skills and explain their answers. There is a much larger emphasis on writing skills with the PARCC. For the first part of the exam, students will have two math sessions and three reading/writing sessions. The end-of-year assessments will include two sessions of math for all grades. Students in grades 3-5 will have one reading/writing session and students in grades 6 and up will have two reading/writing sessions. You can take a practice version of the PARCC here.3. It is not a graduation requirement… yet.

At the end of the 2014 legislative session, state lawmakers approved a bill that placed a moratorium on using the results on a standardized test as part of Rhode Island’s high school graduation policy until the class of 2017 (the state’s current high school sophomores). Education Commissioner Deborah Gist has proposed delaying those requirements until the class of 2020 (current 7th graders). The state has not yet mapped out how well students will be required to perform in order to be eligible for a diploma. There are two other things you should know about how the PARCC will affect students. 1) Beginning in 2017, results in the PARCC will be included on a student’s college transcripts. 2) Results on the PARCC will not be reflected on a student’s report card, but they will assist schools in making course recommendations and offering support to their students.4. There is a major difference between the Common Core and PARCC.

The Common Core State Standards are just that, standards. They were created by a consortium of government and education leaders in 48 states and Washington, D.C., and have been adopted in 43 states, including Rhode Island. The Common Core functions as a set of expectations – not a national curriculum – for what students should have mastered over the course of time at various grade levels (read the ELA standards here and the math standards here). The goal is to ensure that all students graduate from high school prepared for college and ready to enter the workforce. (It’s worth noting there is plenty of controversy around these standards; former assistant U.S. Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch is among the vocal critics.) The PARCC is an exam designed to test whether a student has mastered the Common Core standards for their grade level. The assessment will be used by 11 states and Washington, D.C. Other states will use the Smarter Balanced exam (read about the differences between the tests here).

5. There is a controversy over opting out.

Rhode Island has no formal policy that allows students to opt out of taking the PARCC exam, but just as with any test given in school, teachers have no way of forcing a student to participate. In other states, there has been a groundswell of support for refusing to take the test. In New Mexico, for example, more than 1,000 students walked out of school on the first day of testing; the same thing happened in New Jersey. Generally, the argument for not taking the exam is that it takes away from actual learning time (see more below), but you can also read Ravitch’s blog post on other reasons why students should opt out. That doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences, however. Any school that receives Title I funds from the federal government (this is money that goes to schools with disadvantaged students) is required to have at least 95% of their students participate in annual standardized exams. Several school districts have warned that failing to participate could affect federal funding, but Gist’s office said it doesn’t believe that is the case. While Gist has recommended that all Rhode Island students participate in the exam, there are school districts that have asked parents to inform them if they plan to have their children skip the PARCC. In South Kingstown, for example, parents are required to submit a request in writing by March 11. Meanwhile, the state’s largest teachers’ union has asked the state to inform parents of their right to have their children opt out of the test.6. Testing does take time out of the school day.

In Rhode Island, the first part of the PARCC is expected to take between six and nine hours and the end-of-year assessment is expected to between three and six hours. That’s assuming the state doesn’t face some of the same glitches New Jersey encountered a few weeks ago. By comparison, the NECAP took approximately 8.5 hours to administer. That does not include any preparation work happening in classrooms during the weeks and months leading up the exam.

7. The results will help teachers adjust teaching methods.

If the amount of time spent on testing is a downside to any standardized exam, the upside is that results should help teachers do more of what works and less of what doesn’t when in it comes to classroom instruction. Teachers and school leaders will be able to compare performance with other schools both in and out of the state. They’ll be able to look at schools with similar populations and share best practices. Compare that with the NECAP, which wasn’t administered in Connecticut or Massachusetts, and you can see why some education leaders do see potential with the PARCC.

8. Students are being used as guinea pigs.

When students across the country participated in field testing for both the PARCC and Smarter Balanced exams last year to help iron out any kinks before full implementation of each assessment, Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post referred to them as guinea pigs. That’s still the case this year, but it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Common Core probably isn’t going anywhere any time soon and the exam will give schools the first comprehensive look at how close (or far) students are from mastering those standards. The PARCC will help schools build interim assessments and inform them on how to set the bar when it comes to the Common Core. School leaders in Rhode Island have taken to referring to PARCC as an “educational GPS system,” designed to help teachers and parents understand where a student is academically and find the best route to get them to where they’re supposed to be.9. Teachers evaluations will eventually include PARCC.

As it stands now, results on the PARCC assessment are expected to be used to calculate student growth scores for teachers. But educators will first need three years of test results in order to measure growth, so the PARCC won’t be a factor in teacher evaluations until the 2016-17 school year. During the 2013-14 school year, 98% of all teachers in Rhode Island were rated effective or highly effective.10. There are lots of accommodations for students who need it.

Schools are allowed to give students with learning disabilities or English language learners more time to complete the exam. Certain students are also allowed to take the exam in small groups, have frequent break periods, test at different time of day or in a different location or use adaptive or specialized equipment or furniture. And of course, for those school systems that aren’t quite prepared for the technology associated with the exam, paper tests are available.11. Massachusetts is replacing the MCAS with the PARCC.

Our neighbors to the north are widely considered the model for public school systems in the United States and even they’re moving away from the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exam that they’ve used for two decades in favor of the PARCC exam. High school students will still use the MCAS for graduation policy purposes until the class of 2019, but education officials have said they believe the PARCC exam will ultimately help Massachusetts close achievement gaps between poor and wealthy students. (No surprise, Ravitch thinks this is a bad idea.) New Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker also isn’t completely sold on the PARCC.

12. We have no clue how students will do.

Teachers and school leaders are pointing to the abysmal scores on Common Core-aligned exams in New York as an example of what Rhode Island could face, but no one quite knows exactly how students will perform during the benchmark year. The results from the field exam last year weren’t released at all. Here’s what we do know: 1) Roughly 71% of principals in Massachusetts think the PARCC is more demanding than the MCAS. 2) There have been complaints that the questions are worded in confusing ways. 3) Rhode Island’s track record on other standardized exams is mixed. The state has made improvements on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), but 36% of students in the class of 2015 scored substantially below proficient on the math or English section of the NECAP exam last year (if the state’s high school graduation policy was in place this year, those students would have forced the retake the exam).Dan McGowan ( ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowanItem #5 has been updated to reflect that while several school departments have said a failure to participate could result in a loss in federal funding, the Department of Education does not believe that is the case.