The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, as the test is formally known, has been controversial since it was created by the state's Education Reform Act of 1993. First administered in 1998, the multiple-choice exam became a high school graduation requirement in 2000.
Despite protests from superintendents, principals and teachers, the MCAS has endured. Now 10 years old, it has become a fixture in the classroom, for good or ill, forcing schools and teachers to adjust their approach to education.
"Sometimes we look at the (test) as the only thing that is driving this, but really, the assessment is based on the curriculum framework" that every school is expected to use, said Jake Eberwein, Pittsfield's deputy superintendent of schools and the former principal of Pittsfield High School. "Ultimately, the tests that our students are taking link back to that framework, so we always want our teachers to be creating a curriculum that is consistent with those frameworks."
Eberwein said that, when people accuse the schools of "teaching to the test, I say, 'Right on we are teaching to the test, because those skills are the skills we want our children to have.' "
The challenge then becomes incorporating MCAS standards into everyday lessons, without resorting to rote learning that will turn off the kids and teachers.
The strategies vary. At Allendale Elementary School in Pittsfield, Principal Morgan Williams and the faculty analyzed the MCAS results and realized that, although the students had the knowledge to answer a question, they didn't always have the know-how.
The reason was simple: The question asked the students to use their knowledge in a way they weren't accustomed to. The solution has been to teach students analytical skills like the ability to compare and contrast two ideas, or to get information from a graph that help them use what they have learned.
Those skills have been incorporated across the curriculum, Willams said. So a student who needs to know how to interpret a graph for math class might find herself using a graph in social studies, too.
"The MCAS is here to stay, and you can't just continually teach the test. But by doing this, we are teaching essential concepts that we can use in all our subjects," he said.
Last year, Allendale received statewide recognition when its fifth-grade MCAS math scores increased by 40 percentage points. But the method has other benefits, Williams said: Instead of focusing more classroom time on MCAS subjects like English and math at the expense of social studies and science, the school can offer a full range of classes and still prepare its students for the test.
And Williams said the school is cutting back on its practice MCAS tests, freeing up still more classroom time.
At Lenox Memorial High School, Principal Bruce Walker said the school doesn't teach to the test, but has nonetheless incorporated the MCAS framework into its curriculum.
For example, Walker said, "on a long composition, there are certain elements that should be included. They should be in any long composition, so we wouldn't teach the writing unit specifically to match what might be on the MCAS in terms of a topic," but would still be teaching core test principles.
The MCAS is different
Lenox Memorial like every high school has long coped with standardized tests. There are SATs for college-bound students and Advanced Placement exams for those who excel in certain subjects. The MCAS is different, Walker said, in that every student must take it and pass in order to graduate.
Some need extra help with basic test-taking skills. Rather than spend classroom time teaching students to take a test, however, Walker said the school offers an after-school MCAS prep course to ninth- and 10th-graders; the sessions are free and generally held once a week.
"In the ninth grade, we particularly target students who may have struggled on the MCAS test in an earlier grade," Walker said. "In the 10th grade, we open it to any student who wishes to come."
Joanne Austin, the superintendent of the Farmington River Regional School District, said the MCAS has never lived up to its original mission to help schools analyze their curriculum. Instead, it has become "more of a measure of students' performance."
Schools are always struggling with trying to keep a balance between teaching the standards dictated by the test and teaching the whole student, she said.
"It works least best when you just pound the kids over the head and the teachers over the head with, 'Did you hit all these standards?' " she said. "When you respect the professionalism of the educators and respect the needs of the students, then you come out with a much better product."