Details of MCAS 2.0, the new standardized test Bay State public school children will take for the first time next spring, are emerging from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).

About 425,000 Massachusetts public school students in Grades 3-8 — about 40% of the Commonwealth’s entire public student body — are expected to take the new hybrid test, dubbed MCAS 2.0, with students in Grades 4 and 8 taking it on a computer.

The new test consists of questions aligned to the controversial Common Core State Standards (CCSS), as well as those unique to the Bay State’s homegrown MCAS test, which the state’s public school children have faced for nearly 20 years.

The new test may not be timed, said DESE spokesperson Jacqueline Reis: “That’s still being worked out.” This is contrary to the previous, stand-alone PARCC test more than half of the Commonwealth’s public school students in Grades 3-8 took this spring. Students in districts not trialing the PARCC test were administered the current MCAS exam.

More on Common Core and standardized testing in Massachusetts:

Board of Education Accepts New Standardized Test for 2017: ‘MCAS 2.0’
The Surprising Backers Behind Common Core in Massachusetts
Common Core Opposition Gains Momentum in Massachusetts

Also unknown, Reis said, is how soon results from the computerized version of MCAS 2.0 will be released to school districts and parents.

Last fall, Massachusetts Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester proposed a hybrid test, just before the Massachusetts Board of Education (BOE) was due to vote on a successor to the original MCAS. Chester said the older version of the MCAS had served the Commonwealth well, but needed to be updated, as it was not completely aligned with and reflective of the Common Core standards the state BOE adopted in 2010. Massachusetts’s public school children started taking the MCAS in 1998 as part of the law to reform the Commonwealth’s public schools, which passed the state legislature in 1993 and was signed by then Gov. William Weld.

State Secretary of Education James Peyser endorsed the hybrid proposal, and it passed by an 8-3 vote by the BOE, which oversees the state’s public K-12 schools.

Bay State public schools must also comply with a federal government law, No Child Left Behind, and assess their students yearly or risk losing federal money to fund the state’s public school system.

A new federal law, Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law by President Obama last December, becomes effective starting with the 2017-2018 academic year. It also requires public K-12 schools across the country to assess their students annually or risk losing federal money for education.

Last year, the BOE held five hearings across the state throughout spring and summer, during which parents, students, educators, and interested parties shared their thoughts on Common Core and potential MCAS successors, most notably the Common Core-based PARCC test.

There was speculation among many educators last year that the PARCC test would replace the MCAS exam, but PARCC’s stature was diminished when Princeton, NJ-based Mathematica, a policy research company, announced last October that student scores on MCAS “predict college performance (just) as well as scores” on the PARCC test.

MCAS 2.0 details

DESE Deputy Commissioner Jeff Wulfson, who’s spearheading MCAS 2.0, told the BOE at its June meeting that DESE expects students in Grades 4 and 8 — about 142,000 students — to take the test on a computer. In a memo to the BOE last October, Chester estimated such a move to computer-based testing could cost Bay State school districts between $5.5 million to $14.7 million in technology charges.

“We have told the field [school districts] that for next spring our expectation is that we will be doing computer-based testing in Grades 4 and 8,” Wulfson said.

DESE also plans to offer an online version of MCAS 2.0 in spring 2017 for all students in Grades 3-8, Wulfson said, with the expectation that some school districts already have the necessary technology to administer a computer-based test to all of their Grade 3-8 students. DESE estimates there will be about 425,000 students in those grades this fall.

“Once we finalize the vendor selection [the test maker], we’ll be able to finalize the hardware specifications that will be needed for the test, and we’ll get that out to districts in the next few weeks,” Wulfson told the BOE. “And at that point, we want to hear back from districts who feel they won’t be able to make that interim target of Grades 4 and 8 by next year.”

Last November, the BOE set a goal that all school districts be able to administer a computer-based test for nearly all students in 2019. Any school district unable to administer a computerized MCAS 2.0 to its Grade 4 and 8 students next spring will be able to apply for a waiver. It will be approved as long as the school district can show it will be able to offer a computer-based version of MCAS 2.0 by the spring 2018.

“We want to make sure they’re [the school districts] putting together a plan that gets them back on track so they’re not in position where they’re waiting until the last minute trying to bring the whole district on board [for a digital version of MCAS 2.0],” Wulfson told the BOE during its June meeting.

   He also said DESE was negotiating with Dover, N.H.-based testing company, Measured Progress, to design and create MCAS 2.0. DESE’s new contract with a test maker is expected to last through June 30, 2021, Reis said.

   Details of DESE’s negotiations with Measured Progress — and the contract’s possible value — weren’t available, Reis said. However, DESE reported on its website that the company created the previous version of MCAS, between 2009 and 2014, receiving $146 million for the work. The company that provides DESE with MCAS 2.0, Reis said, will pay PARCC for the Common Core-aligned questions.

“The MCAS questions are developed by Measured Progress and reviewed by Massachusetts educators, experts, and DESE staff before being used. PARCC questions were developed by Pearson [a billion-dollar British company] in conjunction with educators, experts, and state agency staff from around the country,” Reis said.

The number of questions aligned with Massachusetts’s educational standards and the number of those from the PARCC consortium hasn’t been decided, Reis says.

At the November 2015 meeting, the BOE also decided to hold school districts harmless in 2017 if their students score poorly on the new test. But the board decided all school districts would be held accountable for their MCAS 2.0 results in 2018. All Massachusetts school districts are ranked from Level 1 (highest-performing) through Level 5 (lowest-performing) depending on how their students fared in their last annual test.

At the June BOE meeting, Wulfson said he expected to address the BOE during its meeting this month with a progress report on how MCAS 2.0 is developing.

The test maker

If Measured Progress provides MCAS 2.0, the company’s founding principal, Stuart Kahl, said their employees, both temporary and permanent, will grade the test at one or possibly all three of their locations in New Hampshire, Colorado, or New York.

Measured Progress’s temporary employees grading the test are hired through Kelly Services, an employment company, and have collegiate training in the academic fields they’re grading, Kahl said.

“Scoring is so misunderstood,” he said. “The important decisions are made before the scoring starts. It’s done by accommodation of the state education department, the committee of educators on a particular subject, and our staff. It’s all joint work and a joint process. What the [test] scorers are doing is matching student responses to the descriptors [answers] that are provided. They’re matching between a student response and the best student sample [response]."