By Colleen Quinn
State House News Service
MALDEN -- State education officials are preparing to field test an online exam that appears poised to replace the MCAS student achievement test, but some Board of Elementary and Secondary Education members have questions about the switch.
Developed 15 years ago, the MCAS was not designed with college and career-readiness in mind, state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education officials said during a board meeting Tuesday. The new assessment program, set to launch with trial runs at 1,250 schools, is designed to move schools in that direction, they said.
The new test, in math and English, is aimed at evaluating the ability of students to think critically about questions and requires more writing. It also includes literary analysis, research abilities, and diagnostic assessment, according to education officials. MCAS science tests will remain the same.
Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said the MCAS needs to be updated.
"We know more about assessment today than we did 15 years ago when we developed MCAS. It is time to upgrade our assessment program and to take advantage of new technologies that are available," Chester told the News Service during a break in the board meeting.
Massachusetts education officials and Gov. Deval Patrick agreed in 2010 to help create the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test that is being developed by a 19-state alliance, including New York and New Jersey. Florida education officials are contemplating bowing out of the alliance.
When they signed up to develop the test, education officials stipulated Massachusetts would adopt PARCC "provided they are at least as comprehensive and rigorous as our current MCAS assessments, if not more so."
Chester said he expects PARCC to be a stronger assessment program. "We wouldn't be participating in the development if we weren't committed to that outcome," he said.
One board member questioned the change and another worried that schools are not equipped for an online test.
Ruth Kaplan, a board member from Brookline, questioned why the state would change if officials determined PARCC was only "as good as" MCAS.
Board member Harneen Chernow, from Jamaica Plain, said she worries how students at schools with a limited number of computers will score compared to students in districts that have more access to technology. There is a paper and pencil version, education officials said.
Chester said "this is not a trivial issue," and there are schools in the commonwealth where there isn't even a broadband connection available.
DESE is trying to get help at the federal and state levels to upgrade school technology. Chester said education officials are talking to the Massachusetts School Building Authority and lawmakers on the House and Senate Ways and Means committees to secure state funds.
Education Secretary Matt Malone said there isn't a mechanism to upgrade technology statewide, and education officials need to be mindful of the technology disadvantages at schools before a full rollout of the test is adopted.
The move away from MCAS marks a shift in testing philosophies. One of the reasons for changing the test, Chester said, is to give students, parents and educators reliable signals about their readiness for college or work.
"Right now our tests, particularly at the high school level, don't do a good job at that," he said. "They weren't designed to tell students whether they are ready for the expectations of employers or colleges, and the evidence is that they are not doing a good job of giving students signals about that."
For example, he said, 40 percent of all public high school graduates need to take a non-credit course in college to play catch-up.
After a two-year rollout, education officials will make a final decision on whether to adopt the PARCC test, or stick with the MCAS. Chester said he expects the new test to become the standard for evaluating student achievement.
"We think the two-year timeframe is a reasonable timeframe and will allow our districts to become familiar with the new assessments and allow us to judge the value of the new assessments in relation to our existing assessment program," he said.
In the fall of 2015, Chester will recommend to the Board of Education to either sunset MCAS or stick with it, "depending on which of those two assessments are stronger."
The pilot testing is being funded by a four-year $186 million federal Race to the Top Assessment grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
The test incorporates federal curriculum standards for English and math, known as the Common Core State Standards, which Massachusetts education officials were involved in developing. The national standards, under development through a collaboration with dozens of states and with the support of the Obama administration, are a precursor to the development of a national exam that would be based on the new standards.
Next spring, 70 percent of the schools around the state will participate in field tests, with two to four classes taking the PARCC test. The schools were picked randomly, but schools that did not have the technology to do the online-based test were given the chance to opt out. Some schools decided to take both the PARCC and MCAS tests.
Chester said the board would spend a lot of time this fall discussing the change. He said the two-year timeline would give education officials time to "get their arms" around all of the issues involved with making a change.
Signing onto national Common Core standards was an issue in the 2010 race for governor. Republican Charles Baker, who is running for governor again in 2014, panned the administration's decision to join the federal effort, saying it could result in weaker standards for Massachusetts students and that Massachusetts would be ceding control of its education decisions to the Obama administration. Gov. Deval Patrick denied the claim, saying he would only pursue the federal efforts if it matched or exceeded the rigor of existing standards.