The Massachusetts Board of Education (BOE) has settled the contentious debate over which standardized test Bay State public school children will take by splitting the difference, approving Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester’s recommendation to use a hybrid test, composed of questions from the controversial, Common Core-aligned PARCC exam along with those from the homegrown MCAS test.
Dubbed “MCAS 2.0,” the new exam, which assesses English and math skills, was approved in an 8-3 vote by the BOE last month and is expected to debut in March 2017. It replaces the MCAS test, taken annually by the Commonwealth’s public school children since 1998, and removes the possibility of administering the full PARCC exam. MCAS 2.0 is expected to be an online-only test by 2019, Chester said in his recommendation.
School districts that need to improve their technology infrastructure to administer the digital version of the new test could face a financial outlay of between $5.5 and $14.7 million, Chester wrote in an Oct. 10 memo to the BOE.
Chester said his Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), which oversees the Commonwealth’s K – 12 public schools, will provide districts with information on funding sources so they can purchase new computers and tech upgrades.
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In the meantime, Chester said, a paper and pencil version of MCAS 2.0 will be available through at least 2018.
“I was very pleased to have a very strong vote in support of the recommendation,” Chester said after the vote. “I just think it bodes well for the future of the Commonwealth and for the education system going forward. We’ve been sitting on our MCAS assessment for 18 years now and so this clears the path and builds on what we’ve done well.”
“PARCC and MCAS are two strong assessment systems with different, and often complementary, strengths and weaknesses,” state Secretary of Education James Peyser said prior to the BOE’s vote. “Developing a next-generation hybrid test is not simply a compromise and it is certainly not a political decision. By incorporating the best of both MCAS and PARCC, we can develop, maintain, and improve a stronger assessment system than would be possible with either test on its own.”
Massachusetts Teacher Association President Barbara Madeloni disagrees.
“This is a political deal that was made in order to pretend that we’re not doing PARCC,” Madeloni said following the BOE’s decision. “We’re hiding PARCC in MCAS and we’re doing this to protect the PARCC consortium.”
PARCC, an acronym for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers, is a consortium consisting of Massachusetts, six other states, and the District of Columbia, and is led by Chester. Just five years ago, 24 states were members of the consortium, yet the organization has seen its membership dwindle sharply as the test — and Common Core — have come under heavy criticism from parents, educators, and experts across the country.
“The Commissioner’s recommendations, as I have read them, leave many questions regarding implementation and objectives unanswered,” said State Rep. Marjorie Decker, (D-Cambridge), a PARCC critic who sponsored legislation earlier this year to impose a three-year moratorium on administering the PARCC test in Massachusetts. Decker also wants to remove the current requirement that students earn a passing score on the 10th grade MCAS exam to earn a high school diploma.
“It seems more like an attempt at addressing a political conundrum,” she added. “The question remains: How do we create assessments to close the achievement gap and ensure that one-third of students who pass the MCAS do not have to also take remedial courses in community college?”
The only change to the Commissioner’s recommendation was an amendment passed by the BOE to hold schools harmless if their students score poorly the first time they take the new test in 2017. But all schools, the board determined, will be held accountable for their test results in 2018, when they must maintain specific performance levels or face repercussions from the state if district averages fall below acceptable scores.
Following the vote, Chester said it’s currently unknown how much time students will have to complete the new test. He’s also unsure of the breakdown between the number of PARCC questions and those from MCAS.
As for the next round of testing, due in March 2016, Chester recommended that school districts continue using whichever standardized test (MCAS or PARCC) they administered earlier this year. Children taking the MCAS test in March could see some PARCC questions.
Massachusetts must administer one standardized test annually in order for its public schools to continue to receive funds from the U.S. Department of Education.
In October, Chester told the BOE that Louisiana is one example of a state that tested its public school children using a hybrid standardized test, which included questions from controversial PARCC test as well as ones unique to the Pelican State.
But according to a spokesman at the Louisiana Department of Education, the first time children will take such a test will be in March 2016.
The PARCC exam “is a substantial advancement. PARCC provides more opportunity for critical thinking, application of knowledge, research, and connections between reading and writing,” Chester said in his recommendation to the BOE, backing a MCAS-PARCC hybrid.
He also noted the PARCC exam is aligned with Common Core, which the BOE accepted as the Commonwealth’s new education standards five years ago.
He further proposed that the state requirement that 10th grade students achieve a passing score on the MCAS to qualify for a high school diploma remain “unchanged at least through the Class of 2019.”
According to Chester’s October 10 memo to the BOE, of the state’s 1,860 public schools, more than 96% “do not meet the ‘next-generation’ standard” for digital learning and could face charges between $162.5 to $363.1 million to improve their technology and add new computers.
Dover, N.H-based Measured Progress develops the current version of MCAS, but it’s uncertain if they’ll create the new version of the exam; DESE spokesperson Jacqueline Reis said the state will accept bids for the project.
“It [the developer] could be Pearson, Measured Progress, or someone else,” she said.
“We think now is the perfect time to hit the pause button on using test results to make high-stakes decisions such as high school graduation, teacher evaluation, and school and district ratings,” said Lisa Guisbond, executive director of Citizens for Public Schools, reacting to Chester’s recommendation.
Donna Colorio, who leads Common Core Forum, which seeks a public referendum to accept or reject Common Core for the November 2016 election, said: “It’s important we make sure the next version of MCAS is not a simply a rebranding of PARCC, but actually an updated MCAS reflecting our high pre-2010 standards” (before Common Core was accepted by the BOE).