Valley schools digest results of new MCAS

  • FILE - In this Jan. 17, 2016 file photo, a sign is seen at the entrance to a hall for a college test preparation class in Bethesda, Md. The 380 million test coaching industry is facing competition from free or low-cost alternatives in what their founders hope will make the process of applying to college more equitable. Such innovations are also raising questions about the relevance and the fairness of relying on standardized tests in admissions process. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File) Alex Brandon

Published: 10/19/2017 5:58:47 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The scores are in after Massachusetts students in grades 3 through 8 took a brand new statewide exam this spring. For the Pioneer Valley, the results are a mixed bag.

In Hampshire County, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding expectations on the new test differed widely among school districts. Because this is a new test, however, the scores this year are only meant to be a baseline from which future progress is measured, and no school is being penalized for lower test scores.

The Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter school received the highest scores in the county, with 73 percent of students meeting or exceeding expectations in English and 72 percent in math.

“We don’t measure our performance against other schools but instead measure it against our ability to achieve our mission,” the charter school’s executive director, Richard Alcorn, wrote in a statement.

“We are pleased that these results show that we have made substantial progress. We will not rest, however, until each student that we serve is achieving these goals.”

On the other end of the spectrum, 30 percent of students in Worthington’s R.H. Conwell Elementary School met or exceeded expectations in English and 25 percent in math. The school’s principal did not immediately respond to request for comment on the school’s scores.

In November 2015, the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to develop a hybrid exam drawing from elements of two tests: the familiar Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers — or PARCC — test, which a consortium of states including Massachusetts created to align to the federal Common Core curriculum.

Scoring for the new “Next Generation MCAS” test, which tests elementary- and middle-school students’ English and math abilities, falls into four categories: exceeding expectations, meeting expectations, partially meeting expectations and not meeting expectations. Statewide, 49 percent of students met or exceeded expectations in English and 48 percent did so in math.

Difficult comparison

Many have cautioned not to compare this year’s test scores with those of the previous “legacy” MCAS test, which 10th-graders took this spring, because the next generation exam is new and more rigorous.

“What is challenging for all of us is that it is hard to make a comparison between the testing we’ve done in previous years and this year’s testing,” Easthampton Superintendent Nancy Follansbee said, adding that the district will have to wait until next year before it can compare this year’s results with anything. In total, 33 percent of Easthampton students met or exceeded expectations in English and 37 percent in math on the new test.

Others are brushing off the “MCAS 2.0” scores as unimportant or failing to give a true measurement of success.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association, which represents teachers across the state, has been a strong opponent of high-stakes testing, arguing it doesn’t provide a sufficient picture of how schools and teachers are performing, and that it moves education toward a dreary “teach to the test” pedagogy.

That was exactly the response from union President Barbara Madeloni, who on Wednesday issued scathing criticism of the test in a statement after scores were released.

“The testing regimen reinforces the myth of failing schools, punishes students and educators, furthers the demand for teachers to drill down on test prep, and gives policymakers the narrative they need to support privatizing our public schools,” Madeloni, who is a former Northampton High School teacher, said in a statement. “This is an excellent time to be loud and clear about the dangerous nonsense being imposed on our students and schools.”

‘Teaching to a standard’

In Northampton, where 50 percent of students met or exceeded English expectations and 42 percent in math, Superintendent John Provost said he rejects standardized testing as the only indicator for student achievement.

“I don’t believe in teaching to a test, I believe in teaching to a standard. If the test is aligned to the standards then hopefully we will see improvements in students’ achievement,” he told the Gazette.

Provost said he doesn’t plan to overhaul school curriculum in response to the test’s more exacting standards.

“The thing that makes the test more or less stressful is the way the adults speak to students about the test,” he said. “We do not intend to change our practices or to intensify pressure around testing just due to the new higher standards. And we strongly encourage parents not to either.”

The state is also using test scores to create a new accountability rating system for schools — a measurement that the education department uses to gauge how a district is performing, with a level 1 school being the highest-performing. That new system will be used starting in fall 2018.

Most elementary and middle schools did not receive a rating because of the new rollout of the exam. However, if the participation rate for any subgroup of students, in any subject, is lower than 90 percent for the new MCAS test, that school is automatically classified as a level 3 school.

That’s what happened in Amherst, where participation rates fell below that threshold in at least one subject for at least one subgroup of students — for example, economically disadvantaged students — at Amherst Regional Middle School, Crocker Farm School, Fort River School and Wildwood School. All four schools, as well as the Amherst and Amherst Regional school districts, therefore received level 3 accountability ratings.

Amherst Superintendent Michael Morris said in a statement that the districts encourage students to take the MCAS in the spring as a measure of their academic progress over time, but also maintain the right for students to opt out of the exam.

“The status of each school is unrelated to how our students performed on the MCAS test and should not be considered a reflection of the achievement of our schools,” Morris wrote, instead pointing to the district’s’ high performance on SAT, ACT and advanced placement tests, and high college acceptance rates.

Online test

Under the new testing regime, schools are also encouraged to administer the exam online, and some 60 percent of students statewide took the online test.

Computer-based tests can be a convenient alternative to traditional paper tests in regards to distribution of materials, security, and scoring, so long as schools have the technology and expertise to administer them, said Hadley Superintendent Anne McKenzie, whose district saw 57 percent of students meet or exceed expectations in English and 47 percent in math.

“When you’re a small district that doesn’t have a huge tech department, that can be very labor-intensive,” McKenzie said. “Overall we didn’t have any real issues. The advantages (of taking the test online) were certainly in packaging and distribution.”

In August 2016, Massachusetts education officials signed a five-year, $150.8 million contract with the company Measured Progress to develop and administer the Next Generation MCAS test. Measured Progress has been the vendor for the existing MCAS exam since 2005. The company is working with subcontractors Pearson Education, the PARCC testing contractor that provides the online testing platform, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Center for Educational Assessment, which will provide psychometric support and validity studies.

Massachusetts became one of the first states to adopt the Common Core standards when the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted in favor of the change in 2010. Today, 42 states subscribe to the Common Core standards developed by the National Governors Association. A petition led by the END Common Core Massachusetts campaign failed to gather enough signatures to put a question on the 2016 ballot on whether to repeal Common Core.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com. Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@gazettenet.com.


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