Friday, January 16, 2015

State Education Officials Plan To Dump MCAS

Ken O’Brien
from State House News Service

State education officials will decide next fall whether to switch from the old standardized tests to a new model under development around the country, and already policymakers have voiced the need to shift public schools' testing approach.

"Higher ed cannot do what it needs to do unless we change the current system," said Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland at an education forum Wednesday morning. He said, "If we don't get it right this time I suspect it is going to be a very long time before we revisit it."

This spring a little more than half the school districts around the state will administer the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers while the other half will stick with the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. 

This fall the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will determine whether to proceed with PARCC, which could supplant the MCAS graduation requirement. MCAS would remain the graduation standard at least through the class of 2019, according to Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, which has been project manager for states in PARCC.

At a Boston Foundation forum, panelists touted the promise of PARCC, which Cohen pitched as more conducive to critical thinking than MCAS.

"These are not trick questions, but they do require a deeper understanding of mathematics," said Cohen, after contrasting PARCC and MCAS questions for third-graders on math and literacy.

Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester and Freeland said the current system leaves public school graduates around Massachusetts unprepared for college.

Chester said a third of public school graduates attending public higher education institutions are placed in at least one remedial course, and at two-year schools that ratio rises to two thirds. Freeland said only one quarter of community college students placed in a remedial class go on to complete their college education.

"They did what we asked them to do in high school. They took our tenth-grade test. They passed it," said Chester, who said PARCC would create "a whole new paradigm" and provide "an accurate signal" to students on whether they are progressing toward college readiness.

"The legacy system is a deeply broken system," said Freeland.

PARCC measures students against the Common Core, a multi-state set of educational standards that Massachusetts adopted in 2010.

Gov. Charlie Baker has opposed Common Core, and his education secretary said Wednesday that the administration would see whether the state proceeds with PARCC before taking a stance on whether to keep Common Core.

"Our view is there's a decision that's coming up in the fall and we need to sort of lay the groundwork for making an informed decision by gathering all the data we can about the rigor of PARCC relative to MCAS and the extent to which it represents a truer or a better measure of college readiness," Education Secretary James Peyser told the News Service on his way across Boston Common Wednesday morning.

Peyser said he would wait for the board's decision, and said the decision about PARCC would come "first" before the state considers shifting its educational standards.

MCAS was first administered in 1998, according to the DESE, and was initiated as part of an effort to boost the standards of public schools throughout the state. In 2001, Congress passed a law requiring states to administer standardized testing.

Patty Nolan, a member of the Cambridge School Committee, said she was disappointed the Bay State hadn't pursued improvements to its homegrown MCAS test.

"My concern about PARCC is we are rushing to adopt PARCC, which may be the right answer, but in the rush to doing that what we did is stop updating our own MCAS," Nolan told the News Service. She also suggested schools might opt for the PARCC exam to avoid the potential of low MCAS scores triggering corrective action.

Paul Toner, the former president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and president of the non-profit New Voice Strategies, said around the country teachers are concerned about how testing is used to evaluate teachers but are not opposed to assessing students with tests. Toner ran for the National Education Association Executive Committee in 2014, and he said he failed to win an endorsement from teachers in North Dakota because he believes in global warming.

"[M]embers got up and asked me, 'Do I support the new common core science standards?' And I said, 'Yes I do.' And they said, 'Well then we can't endorse you because here in our state we're an energy state and it teaches climate change, and we're a big energy state and we don't like that,'" said Toner. "So I lost the endorsement of North Dakota because I wasn't willing to deny that there's climate change going on."

The superintendent of schools in Revere and a Cambridge educator both relayed positive impressions of PARCC and pollster Steve Koczela said a survey of school principals he conducted for Stand for Children indicated they view the test as more challenging for students.

Koczela, who is president of The MassINC Polling Group, said principals see both common core and PARCC as "positive and more demanding," though some uncertainty remains about the test.

"I don't like thinking about teaching to a test," said Jane Bamford Lynch, district math coach in Cambridge. She said, "The PARCC assessment helps us to measure the success students are having."

"The PARCC questions drive you to a different level of thinking," said Revere Superintendent Paul Dakin, who piloted some PARCC tests last year. He said students who are not native English speakers seemed enthused about the exam and the use of computers to administer the tests did not create hurdles.

Chester told the News Service PARCC has a paper and pencil version of the exam, and there are more important reasons to link up school facilities around the state to high-speed internet.

"We have a major push to try to make sure that all of our schools are up to date technologically, in terms of infrastructure, in terms of devices," said Chester. He said, "It's important not just for PARCC. That's a minor part of it. It's important that all of our teachers and our students have 21st century classrooms."

According to DESE, 54 percent of districts have opted to try PARCC tests this spring.

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