PARCC questions were out, but the test scores stayed similar.

While last year’s MCAS scores mimic previous results – with Asian-American, white kids and those from upper-income communities often outperforming African-Americans, Latinos and students from lower-income households and communities – the biggest surprise might be that the test wasn’t the “hybrid” that was expected.

“The only PARCC items that were used on the 2018 Grades 3 – 8 tests were a small number of items on the math tests,” said Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Spokeswoman Jacqueline Reis. “We are not including any PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) items on the 2019 test for any grade or subject.”

“This is a victory, in some ways, for educators,” said Barbara Madeloni, the retired president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), the union representing many Bay State public school teachers, after learning about the dearth of PARCC questions.

Three years ago, she described the Massachusetts Board of Education (BOE) decision that DESE develop a hybrid test, dubbed “MCAS 2.0” – which called for a questions unique to the Bay State as well as those from the Common Core-aligned PARCC exam – as a means to hide the PARCC test within MCAS. The BOE, which oversees DESE, never defined how hybrid MCAS 2.0 was required to be.

“They didn’t give us PARCC and they (DESE) hid that victory from us,” Madeloni added.

“We have been phasing out the PARCC questions, and they will not be returning,” Reis said, adding that DESE was removing those “questions so that we control decisions about all question development and when to release all questions.”

While DESE’s decision to drop PARCC questions appears to be in contrast to the BOE’s directive, it shouldn’t be seen as a repudiation of Common Core State Standards, Reis says.

“When we adopted Common Core in 2010, we did not sign away our right to change our frameworks, and indeed, we revised our frameworks in 2017 with input from Massachusetts educators,” she said. “We are committed to the parts of the Common Core that Massachusetts educators said are important for students to know.”

The 2018 MCAS Results

Fifty-one percent of all Massachusetts public school students in Grades 3 – 8 met or exceeded grade-level expectations in the MCAS English test this year compared to 49 percent last year while 48 percent of the Grade 3 – 8 students met or exceeded grade-level expectations in MCAS math, the same as last year.

“The percentage of students meeting or exceeding expectations does not have much to do with PARCC questions, because PARCC questions were a relatively small part of ‘MCAS 2.0,’” Reis said. “In 2018, for instance, only a small number of PARCC math questions were used, and no PARCC English questions” were used.

More than 426,000 Massachusetts public school children, about 40 percent of the Commonwealth’s public school student body, took the MCAS exams. Nearly 90 percent of the students, says Reis, took the tests on a computer, up from about 60 percent a year ago.

“Humans scored the essays and other open-ended questions,” said Reis. “Computers scored the multiple choice questions and questions in which students had to enter a number or drag a response to the correct place on the screen.”

Under federal education law, known as “ESSA,” for Every Student Succeeds Act, Massachusetts, because it receives federal money for its public schools – more than $600 million during fiscal year 2018 – is required to give a standardized test to its Grade 3 – 8 public school students annually and report the results by demographic and ethnic profile, says U. S. Department of Education (DOE) Spokeswoman Jo Ann Webb. This year’s MCAS results, by ethnicity and demographics, show the following:

• Asian-American children scored the best, with 71 percent meeting or exceeding expectations in English, up four points from last year, while 74 percent met or exceeded expectations in math, the same as in 2017.

• Fifty-eight percent of white students met or exceeded grade-level expectations in English, up two points from last year, while 55 percent met or exceeded expectations in math, the same as last year.

• Thirty-one percent of African-American students met or exceeded grade-level expectations in English compared to 30 percent last year. Twenty-six percent of African-American students met or exceeded expectations in math, the same as last year.

• Thirty-one percent of Latino students met or exceeded expectations in English, up two points from last year, while the percentage meeting or exceeding grade-level expectations in math was 27 percent, down a point from last year.

• Thirty-two percent of economically disadvantaged students – those coming from families with lower incomes – met or exceeded grade-level expectations in English, up three points from last year, while 27 percent met or exceeded expectations in math, the same as 2017.

DESE also reports MCAS results by school district and, often, students in districts with higher incomes, including Dover-Sherborn, Lexington, Southborough, Winchester, Wellesley, Wayland, Concord and Carlisle, with annual average household incomes well above $100,000 and, in some cases, in excess of $200,000, showed better performance than students in Holyoke, Southbridge, Webster, Orange, Brockton, Springfield and Gardner, communities with average annual household incomes less than $60,000.

“It’s not because schools are failing that some school districts (with lower incomes) don’t do well,” said Winchester Public Schools Superintendent Judith Evans. “Their students face very different challenges that ours (in Winchester) don’t.”

“Test scores pattern and follow socioeconomic communities,” said Tom Loveless, an education researcher and a former senior fellow with The Brookings Institution, a Washington, DC-based think-tank. “They do in every country. All countries show the same exact results: The scores are correlated with communities.”

While it might seem discriminatory, there’s an upside to reporting standardized test results by demographic and ethnic profile, Loveless said: “If the gaps aren’t broken out, then it allows school systems to cover up and not serve minority populations because attention isn’t being drawn to the issue.”

MCAS Modified?

Two proposed laws in the Massachusetts Legislature would take out some of the bite from schools suffering from poor MCAS scores.

“Data shows that standardized tests haven’t moved the needle on closing the achievement gap in our state,” said State Rep. Marjorie Decker (D-Cambridge). Her proposed bill prevents the BOE and DESE from taking action against a school district or school due to low MCAS scores for three years.

Decker’s bill also requires a task force be formed to study the impact of MCAS and any “mandated state assessments” on teachers, high school graduation rates and whether they should be eliminated or modified.

Another proposed law, from State Sen. Michael Rush (D-West Roxbury), also seeks to have MCAS and other state assessments reviewed by a task force to see how they impact high school graduation rates and the evaluation of school districts and teachers.

Meantime, the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, (MCIEA), consisting of six school district superintendents and the heads of their local teacher unions, is advocating for a very different version of MCAS. It’s receiving $400,000 in state funding and recently, said Dan French, an Ex Officio member of MCIEA, a DESE staff member started attending their meetings.

The new assessment, he said, would be based on “student work that’s generated from a series of tasks, and they would be required to demonstrate what they know and are able to do. It would be a portfolio that shows whether or not they meet the proficiency determination. It would be scored and judged by teachers.”

The portfolio would be work “accumulated over the course of a school year and would include four to six selections that would have to meet the standards of that academic discipline,” he said. “It might mean that an assessment for a history course is judged based on a research paper, a PowerPoint presentation and a podcast all tied back to the standards of that academic discipline.”

MCIEA’s second goal is to develop a school quality dashboard for parents “that takes into consideration the full scope of what a school does,” said French. “You want to assess multiple measures, including culture, resources, a sense of community, wellness, teacher quality, academic quality and learning.”

Those seeking to change MCAS see an opportunity because current federal education law, known as “ESSA,” allows states flexibility in determining the type of annual assessments they give to their public school students, says State Sen. Patricia Jehlen (D-Somerville), vice chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education.

“States have latitude to determine what assessments they administer,” said DOE Spokeswoman Jo Ann Webb, describing the ESSA law. “They need to meet the requirement to be valid and reliable for purposes for which it is used and demonstrate that the assessments meet nationally recognized professional testing “States have discretion in the form, format, and content of the assessments,” she added.

Standardized Testing’s Contrasting Views

MCAS, a result of the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform law, has been taken by Bay State public school students since 1998. It and similar standardized tests have critics and defenders.

“MCAS makes students from more privileged backgrounds and affluent communities and their schools seem as they have nothing to work on,” said Jack Schneider, an education professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “Just because your students come in more prepared to succeed on MCAS doesn’t mean the school is any better simply because the state accountability system says they are.

“Are the students engaged? Do they value learning? Are they socially and emotionally healthy? It’s an open question as to how our high performing schools are doing on all the things we care about,” he added.

“The latest MCAS exam results are predictable and continue the destructive practice of narrowing the purpose of public education,” said MTA President Merrie Najimy. “Placing so much emphasis on a test designed to measure college and career readiness has replaced the broad-based liberal arts education that children deserve and that they need to be well-rounded human beings and well-functioning citizens in a democratic society.”

There’s also another view on standardized testing: “You can track progress or lack thereof by how schools are doing on (standardized) tests,” said Loveless. “Parents can track their kids’ performance from grade to grade on these tests.

“(Standardized) tests don’t capture everything we want schools to do, other than teaching reading and math, but taxpayers want to see schools that are competent. (The tests) only capture a small element of what they (schools) do but they capture a very critical element,” he added.

“The idea behind (the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform law) was to ensure a level playing field and to make sure all students had access to a high level of education,” said Winchester’s Judith Evans, who also sits MCIEA’s board. “When the MCAS came about, I don’t think the state intended it to be punitive or shaming those who didn’t do as well but that’s the direction it’s gone.

“We should try something different,” she added.

“Any accountability system in any organization always lies atop a bunch of compromises, assumptions, and convenient half-truths,” said Frederick Hess, an executive editor at EducationNext, a journal published at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, DC-based think-tank. “It’s always a balancing act to figure out what’s reasonable, what’s too ambitious, and what’s not ambitious enough. And when we’re dealing with kids and schools the whole thing gets emotional and very personal. It’s a remarkably tough position on everyone’s part.”

Doug Page is a Massachusetts father of two teenagers and award-winning writer whose newspaper career started in high school. He’s written stories, sold ads, and delivered newspapers in the morning’s wee hours. He’s been covering Common Core and Massachusetts public education for the last six years.