The Mystery of MCAS 2.0

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

The hybrid test approach, in which the annual exam would be a mix of Common Core-aligned questions and those unique to the state and not Common Core-based, was approved by the Massachusetts Board of Education (BOE) at its November 2015 meeting. At the time, Mitchell Chester, commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), which is the test’s final arbiter, told baystateparent he was unsure how much of the new test would be based on Common Core standards.

The decision to move to a standardized hybrid test ended nearly three years of educator and parent uproar over the use of Common Core standards in Massachusetts public schools and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers (PARCC) test, which is fully based on Common Core. Common Core critics claim the standards are far from being as rigorous as Massachusetts’s previous educational standards.

More on standardized testing in Massachusetts:

Massachusetts Public Schools: Achievement & Controversy

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

 The new hybrid test will replace the 18-year-old homegrown MCAS exam in March 2017. Yet a full year after a hybrid test model was approved, DESE officials remain mum on exactly how much Common Core-based content the new test will contain.

“We do not have a percentage of test questions that will come from PARCC vs. MCAS,” DESE spokesperson Jacqueline Reis said. “We’re still building the new test.”

She added that parents and teachers can get a sense of what will be on the new test at two new websites, one for the English Language Arts test and another for the math test.

“They [DESE] have a good sense of pushing this test to another level and it will reflect a lot of Common Core and PARCC-type of questions,” said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents (MASS). “In terms of an actual percentage, [DESE] might not have that yet, which is why they’re likely cautious on saying anything about it.”

Critics, however, offer a different theory on the delay.

“Of course, they know what’s going to be on the test,” said Sandra Stotsky, a senior associate commissioner at DESE until 2003 and, until six years ago, a member of the BOE. “Everything is all done. No one wants to define what a hybrid test is, but [Chester and his staff] know what it is. The BOE’s vote for a hybrid test was politically ambiguous. They know the use of the PARCC name will continue to arouse people, so that’s why they’re calling it MCAS even though it won’t look anything like the old MCAS test.”

Until he proposed the hybrid exam, with the full backing of state Secretary of Education James Peyser, it was thought Chester preferred the PARCC test. He was governing chairman of the PARCC consortium, which consisted of a number of state education officers from around the country, when he made the proposal last fall to switch to a hybrid test, telling the BOE that the PARCC “sets a higher bar than MCAS for student performance.” Chester has since stepped down from his role as chairman of the PARCC consortium.

In the same memo, Chester said he backed a hybrid test because “public comment, as well as the Board’s discussion, have helped me to understand the importance of ensuring the Commonwealth’s control over our standards and assessments.”

That sentiment likely stemmed from five forums the BOE held around the Bay State during the spring and summer of 2015. Chester and other BOE members attended and listened to parents, teachers, school administrators, children, and interested parties share their thoughts on which test they preferred. Chester and board members witnessed fervent opposition to the PARCC test and Common Core standards from many attendees, mirroring that of parents, educators, and experts across the country. The BOE adopted Common Core standards for Massachusetts public schools in July 2010 and was rewarded with a $250 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to implement them.

In his proposal last fall, Chester dubbed the new hybrid test “MCAS 2.0” and pointed to Louisiana as an example, noting the Pelican State also assessed its public school students with a hybrid exam.

But in Louisiana, Common Core created such an uproar that the state legislature and then-Gov. Bobby Jindal passed and signed a law in May 2015, which has since expired, that allowed for no more than 49.9% of the questions on their annual assessments during the 2015-2016 academic year to be from PARCC. The remainder were unique to the state, says Bridget Devlin, the Louisiana Department of Education’s chief of staff.

While a new Louisiana state law requires their annual standardized test to fully reflect the Pelican State’s educational standards, they’re now allowed to use “a variety of assessment question banks [including one from PARCC] to meet these requirements,” Devlin said.

In Massachusetts, the BOE has left the term “hybrid” open to interpretation. It’s unknown if MCAS 2.0 will look similar to Louisiana’s previous annual assessment or be what Massachusetts Teachers Association President Barbara Madeloni predicted immediately after the BOE approved the MCAS 2.0 concept: the PARCC test in disguise.

Stotsky said it’s painstaking work to create a standardized test, requiring DESE staff and the test maker to ask: “Have all the questions correctly addressed the [curriculum] standards? Is every [curriculum] standard being accounted?”

“They need to make sure they have the right distribution of questions, that the test items are organized in a logical manner. There’s also a printing issue. You’ve got to have lead-time to proofread the test. The testing company needs to make sure it has all the approvals from DESE officials. There are also [DESE] staff members who double- and triple-check the test,” she added.

Dover, N.H.-based Measured Progress recently signed a new, five-year, $150.8 million contract with DESE to create the new MCAS test, an increase from $146 million it received for creating the previous version of MCAS between 2009 and 2014.

“It does not matter whether the test is the MCAS, PARCC, or MCAS 2.0; we believe that classroom teachers and other educators who work directly with students are the only ones who can create authentic, meaningful assessments,” Madeloni said. “Pursuing the development of MCAS 2.0 is an expensive endeavor, and it is shameful that the state would make such a commitment to this faulty method of judging students, educators, schools, and entire districts, especially at a time when we know that our public schools are underfunded by about a $1 billion a year.”

What’s on MCAS 2.0?

“There will be a sizable number of PARCC questions because that’s the direction the curriculum standards are going in,” MASS Executive Director Scott said.

In March 2017, about 425,000 Massachusetts public school students in Grades 3-8, about 40% of the state’s public school student population, will face the new hybrid test, which measures English and math skills. Children in Grades 4 and 8, about 142,000 students, are expected to take the test on a computer.

The new MCAS test, at least in March, will not be timed, DESE spokesperson Reis said, but noted that might change in the coming years. An untimed test is a change from the PARCC test, which some Massachusetts school districts trialed in 2015 and 2016.

“[An untimed test] allows children enough time to feel comfortable and not feel rushed, but that’s not to say it wouldn’t be a harder test,” Scott said.

While DESE expects children in only Grades 4 and 8 to take the test online this March, it plans to offer the test on a computer for all students in Grades 3-8, too, DESE Deputy Commissioner Jeff Wulfson told the BOE this past spring, in the hopes that some school districts will have the necessary technology to test all of their students online. DESE Commissioner Chester has previously estimated that computer-based testing could cost Bay State public school districts between $5.5 million to $14.7 million in overall technology charges and updates.

A paper and pencil version of the new test will be offered in March and in 2018, but Reis said all school districts should be ready to take test on a computer by 2019.

Bay State public school children have taken the MCAS test since 1998. It was part of a law to reform the Commonwealth’s public K-12 schools, which passed the state legislature in 1993 and was signed by then-Gov. William Weld. Federal education law also requires states to assess their students annually or risk not receiving federal funds for their public schools.

While school districts won’t be held accountable for the results of next March’s exam, they will be held accountable in 2018. All Massachusetts public school districts are ranked from Level 1 (highest-performing) through Level 5 (lowest-performing) depending on how their students fared on their last annual MCAS exam.