School officials and education watchdogs are conducting a postmortem on a pilot of the first new standardized testing system to be used in Massachusetts in nearly two decades.
The high-stakes English language arts and mathematics exams developed under the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) have been administered in grades 3 through 8 and Grade 10 for the past 17 years.
"It is time for an upgrade," state Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester told reporters during a recent press conference on the subject.
Chester is the chairman of the national governing board of PARCC -- the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. Massachusetts is in the middle of a two-year plan to "test drive" the new PARCC English language arts and math exams, said to be designed to better assess students as 21st-century learners, in alignment with the Common Core curriculum standards that the state has adopted and is now implementing.
About 81,000 students in 1,050, or about two-thirds, of Massachusetts public schools across 345 districts took at least one of the PARCC exams this spring. About a million students took the PARCC pilot exams across the United States.
A total of 28 schools in Berkshire County had two or three classes each participate, with 10 schools administering a paper version of the field test and the other 18 conducting the tests in an online platform.
For school districts wanting to guarantee their spot to continue with the PARCC pilot in Spring 2015, they must let the state know by June 30. Districts that are unsure have until Oct. 1 to make the choice of going with one system or the other.
"Right now, all of the schools are in the process of determining whether they will go with PARCC or MCAS next year," said Charlie Kaminski.
He's the dean of academic affairs for business, science, mathematics and technology at Berkshire Community College, and along with Robin Getzen, an English language arts teacher at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, serves as a PARCC fellow and liaison on the initiative to the county.
This summer, Kaminski and Berkshire Readiness Center coordinator, Doug McNally will attend a national PARCC meeting, and educators and administrators will have opportunities to attend training workshops to better learn how to administer the exams.
McNally said the transition between having no accountability system to the dawn of MCAS in the early 1990s was a vastly different time than the current transition between MCAS and a next generation assessment system. "I think people seem to forget what a shock it was when we rolled MCAS out," said McNally, who's previously worked as a local high school principal.
The key, he said, will be properly communicating the new test roll-out, whether its PARCC or a redesigned MCAS. "Massachusetts knows the blowback that happened in New York State. They rolled it out too fast," McNally said.
During a press conference with reporters last week, Chester said that around 90 school districts had already voted on the exam system they will use during the 2014-15 school year; about 57 percent will use the PARCC system and 43 percent will use MCAS.
Not all of the Berkshire County school districts could be reached as of press time, but so far, Lenox Public Schools, Southern Berkshire Regional School District and North Adams Public Schools have voted to use MCAS next year. Central Berkshire Regional School District will implement the PARCC system.
Outgoing Central Berkshire Superintendent William Cameron said the district's school committee voted during last Thursday's meeting, after much discussion, to stay with PARCC.
Both he and incoming superintendent, Robert Putnam, recommended PARCC to the group.
"PARCC is better aligned with the Common Core, on which the 2011 Massachusetts Frameworks are based, than is the current version of the MCAS test," said Cameron.
He also noted, as did Chester, that school districts who implement PARCC next year will be able to do so under a so-called "no harm" provision, meaning that how students perform on the PARCC exams will not affect a district's accountability status under the state's current benchmarks it set for itself under an extended No Child Left Behind waiver agreement with the federal government.
"And, as a result of that respite, going with PARCC in 2014-2015 will give teachers a year without adverse consequences to become more familiar with the PARCC testing format and to prepare their students for taking this new test," Cameron said.
For school districts continuing on with MCAS, they will have the ability to continue tracking ongoing comparative data through that system.
Chester said the state looks forward to seeing close to a 50-50 split between districts taking PARCC and MCAS, "to have a strong comparison" for the state Board of Education to decide in Fall 2015 "whether or not it's time to sunset MCAS."
As districts move forward with making decisions on which exams to take, they will have to weigh things like their own capacity to train staff in implementing PARCC, be it the online or print version; what their capacity of technology is and how well staff and students are trained to used it; and which exam best assesses what students have learned.