Massachusetts Board of Education OKs Trial Run for New Test

A new standardized test known as PARCC could replace Massachusetts’ current student assessment known as MCAS. This week, the state board of education voted in favor of piloting the exam being used in other states. 

Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester says the MCAS had a good run, but change is needed, as MCAS is more than a decade old and very limiting.

“It’s time,” Chester said. “It’s time for us to take stock, to look around, to upgrade our expectations, to take advantage of student what we know about student learning that we we didn’t know a decade ago. And that’s what our new expectations in English, language arts, and math, as well as in science that we’re developing reflect. “

Those expectations are based on the Common Core, a set of standards 45 states, including all in New England, have adopted.

On Tuesday, members of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education followed Chester’s vision and voted in favor of piloting a new exam known as PARCC, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. About 20 other states are also trying the test this spring.

Chester says PARCC will give parents and students clearer signals about their readiness for college or jobs. And because it’s administered online, Cheser said, the state is taking advantage of technology.

“[Like] enhanced items that lets students manipulate objects, graphs, and scientific experiments,” he said. “[The internet] allows students to do research including using digital texts and accessing multiple sources of information and opinion on a given topic.”

The kind of tasks Chester says college professors expect and employers require. 

But Monty Neil doesn’t see PARCC as an improvement over MCAS. Neil is the executive director of  FairTest (The National Center for Fair and Open Testing), a group generally critical of standardized testing practices.

“PARCC, like the MCAS, will be predominantly multiple choice and not be able to assess more than a limited slice of what students know and what they should be learning, ” Neil said. “The PARCC will be used as a high-stakes test for schools and weigh in on teacher evaluations, and misused in the same way as a high-stakes basis on judging whether students should have a diploma.”

Neil said better ways to assess students include judging portfolios of their work in combination with limited standardized tests.

This spring, one million students will participate in the PARCC field test across the country, about 150,000 of them from Massachusetts, according the state department of education.

In western Massachusetts, Granby, Hadley, Belchertown and Amherst are among the districts participating.

Michael Morris is the director of assessment and evaluation for the Amherst Regional and Pelham Schools. He said he hasn’t seen enough of the PARCC exam to understand if it’s better than the MCAS.  

He added, given the significant amount of time that students will be taking assessment exams, “If the school is getting information that informs teaching, it’ll be time well spent. I think we’ll have to wait and see to see if that’s actually true, or not. Because really, if it’s just around compliance, if it doesn’t inform our teaching, then I question pretty much any assessment and why we’re doing it. But if it really does inform what we need to do for students in our taught curriculum, than really, that’s what I’m most interested in finding out.”

In the short term, Morris is concerned about student stress. During the pilot phase, some some students will have to take both PARCC and MCAS.

Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester leads the governing board that oversees the PARCC consortium of about twenty states, although Chester foresse some states may drop out.

There’ve been protests against the exam in New York and elsewhere. Almost at the same time Massachusetts was voting in favor of trying out the new test, the Florida  State Board of Education was hearing criticism about the exam from educators and parents.

Photo courtesy of The Republican and MassLive.