State education board OKs new hybrid test

Last modified: Thursday, December 10, 2015

BOSTON — Massachusetts students will soon be facing a new standardized test after the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to combine elements of the existing MCAS test with another test aligned with Common Core state standards.

Approval of the hybrid test came on an 8-3 vote Tuesday after two years of debate on whether to replace the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test with the PARCC test.

PARCC — which stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers — was developed by a national consortium that includes Massachusetts.

The new “next-generation MCAS” would be given for the first time in spring 2017. It would use both PARCC and MCAS items, along with items developed specifically for the Massachusetts tests.

Stephen G. Sireci, a professor in the department of education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said he believes the hybrid test is a good option for the state.

“It allows them to still participate in a lot of the good work of the consortium, and at the same time allows it to be tailored for students in Massachusetts,” he said.

Sireci is also director of the Center for Educational Assessment at UMass Amherst. He said he believes the biggest challenge facing any testing program is finding a way to administer the tests without depriving classrooms of teachers and computer resources. He calls this a “solvable problem.”

“But I think we haven’t worked out how to manage it yet,” he said. “It’s going to take innovation, management and scheduling.”

MCAS will continue to be a graduation requirement through the class of 2019.

Test history

Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester recommended the changes last week. He said the new test will help better prepare students for college and a career.

Secretary of Education James Peyser said the vote “gives our students, families and educators a better measure of student achievement while maintaining state control over our assessment system.”

MCAS has been used since 1998. Passing the exam’s English language and math portions became a high school graduation requirement in 2003. A science and technology requirement was added in 2010.

Massachusetts gave PARCC a two-year trial run to help determine if it should replace MCAS as the state’s primary educational assessment tool and graduation requirement for high school students.

In 2015, the state gave school districts the option of administering PARCC or MCAS to students in grades 3-8. Officials said 54 percent of districts statewide chose PARCC. All 10th-graders were still required to take MCAS. More than 220,000 students in more than half of the state’s districts took complete PARCC tests last year.

Results showed that students in grades 3-8 who took PARCC last spring were, on average, less likely to perform well on that test than those who took the traditional MCAS exams, officials said.

Carrie Foley, a special education teacher at White Brook Middle School in Easthampton and the vice president of the Easthampton Educators Association, said she was disappointed with the state’s decision to incorporate some aspects of PARCC into the state tests.

“I was hoping PARCC would not be chosen,” she said. “It was disappointing to hear, but it was expected.”

Foley has previously publicly criticized PARCC and other high-stakes tests. At a state forum in July, she said she has a student who struggled during PARCC tryouts but performs well in other areas. She said she believes tests like PARCC can conflict with some students’ disabilities.

For spring 2016, schools districts that administered PARCC last spring will use the test again. Districts will continue with MCAS unless they choose to administer PARCC.

Shift to PARCC

While Easthampton tried out PARCC last spring, Northampton stuck with MCAS. Northampton Superintendent John Provost — who began in his position after the decision was made to stick with MCAS — said he has not yet made a decision about spring 2016.

“I want to study the issue thoroughly before making a final recommendation to the Northampton School Committee,” he wrote in an email Tuesday night.

Julie Spencer-Robinson, the president of the Northampton Association of School Employees, said she appreciates that the education commissioner has responded to opposition to PARCC by recommending a hybrid test, and she is glad that the state will have control over the assessments.

“There are aspects of PARCC that appeal to me that just aren’t possible with a paper and pencil test, like the visual components, the many accommodations that can be made for students with disabilities, and a shorter wait for the results,” she wrote in an email. “I hope that when the computerized version of the test is launched, the state ensures that districts have their technological needs met well in advance.”

Education officials say the MCAS tests used next spring will include a limited number of items from the PARCC test to make statewide comparisons easier. The changes will also give students and teachers a chance to experience elements of PARCC while the new assessment test is being developed.

PARCC is aligned with Common Core standards that have been adopted in about 40 states but have become a rallying point for critics who say the standards interfere with states’ abilities to shape their own educational blueprints.

Common Core supporters say the curriculum better prepares students for college and 21st-century careers.

Officials said any districts that use the PARCC test next spring will be held harmless for any negative changes in their school and district accountability levels. That’s a continuation of the state’s approach to districts that used PARCC in spring 2015.

The board also voted to hold all districts harmless based on test scores in 2017, when all the state’s districts would use a single test.


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