HARVARD -- Just about everyone with children attending public school in Massachusetts has heard of the MCAS test.

Teachers send home packets for students to prepare for MCAS, and schools send home communications to parents, advising them to have their child(ren) get a good night's sleep before MCAS and to eat a healthy and hearty breakfast the morning of the exam.

In Massachusetts, students must pass the grade 10 MCAS in English language arts (ELA), mathematics and one of the four high school science and technology engineering tests in order to graduate from high school.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System was designed to meet the requirements of the Education Reform Law of 1993. MCAS is also intended to hold schools accountable for student progress in regard to the No Child Left Behind Act. The first MCAS tests were administered in 1998. Students begin taking MCAS in third grade.

In September of 2013, the Harvard Public School district was informed by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that it had been selected to participate in the spring 2014 PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) field tests.

PARCC is a consortium of 18 states, plus the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands, that all work together to develop a common set of K-12 assessments in English and math, and ultimately to prepare students for college and careers.


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PARCC states include Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Tennessee. Together, PARCC states educate about 22 million students.

More than 1 million students in 14 of the PARCC states will take the field test this spring. The field tests are designed to "test out this new test," and determine whether the questions are fair, challenging and of high quality. In effect, the students will be testing the PARCC assessments.

Mitchell Chester, commissioner of the Massachusetts public schools, is the chair of the PARCC Governing Board, and Massachusetts has taken a leadership role in the development of the PARCC Assessments.

In Massachusetts, PARCC will affect approximately 75,000 students across 300 Massachusetts school districts, which is 15 percent of the student population.

How PARCC affects Harvard

Harvard Public Schools was one of the 300 school districts randomly selected to participate in the field testing. The PARCC field test will include two types of required tests in both ELA and math. The first is called a Performance Based Assessment (PBA), which will occur between March 24 and April 11. The second is called an End-of-Year Assessment (EOY), which will be administered May 5 through June 6. PARCC is a computer-based assessment, however, during field testing, pencil and paper testing will remain an option.

At the Bromfield School, 40 percent of randomly selected students in grades 7 and 8 will take the PARCC field tests -- two classes for math and two classes for ELA. Grade 7 will take the math assessment and Grade 8 will take the ELA assessment. The test will be administered online in the computer lab. According to Principal Jim O'Shea, the school will adjust its MCAS testing schedule for grades 7 and 8 to dovetail with the PARCC assessments so that students will be tested at relatively the same time.

"The state has given school districts the option of an MCAS exemption for any student taking the PARCC assessment. Our school district as a whole decided that students who are selected to participate in PARCC will not be taking the MCAS in those areas in which they will take the PARCC," explained O'Shea. "We wanted to avoid overtesting or "double testing" our students, as well as minimize the loss of additional instructional time."

At Hildreth Elementary School, there will be two grade 3 classes and two grade 5 classes that will take the math PARCC assessment only (not the ELA assessment). Hildreth will administer PARCC in March using paper and pencil versus online testing. 

Students who take the PARCC field test and do not take the MCAS in a field-tested subject will not receive scores in that subject. In regard to results for an entire school district, Commissioner Chester has pledged that no school will have its accountability rating disadvantaged by participating in the PARCC field test. Additional information is available at doe.mass.edu/parcc.

Why PARCC?

Massachusetts adopted new and improved learning standards in December of 2010 -- the "2011 Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for English Language Arts and Literacy" and the "2011 Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for Mathematics." Since the learning standards changed, a next generation assessment was required, thus, the development of PARCC.

There are a few notable differences between PARCC and MCAS at this time: PARCC is designed to align with these new 2011 curriculum frameworks; MCAS is a paper and pencil exam whereas PARCC is an online exam; and PARCC has more testing sessions than MCAS.

Massachusetts has not, however, formally adopted PARCC as its test to replace MCAS. The state has approved a two-year transition plan. After the two-year trial period, the state will make a decision as to whether to adopt PARCC as its new assessment system for Massachusetts public schools in 2015.

"The plus of all this is that PARCC will assess how committed we are to teaching the new and improved standards and whether we are successful in having our students learn these standards," said Gretchen Henry, associate principal, Hildreth Elementary School. "It creates equity across the state."