Massachusetts education chief calls for new hybrid test
BOSTON — Massachusetts' education commissioner called Thursday for the state to create a new standardized test for public school students, one that would combine elements of the current assessment with another that is closely aligned with federal Common Core standards.
The recommendation by Mitchell Chester, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, appears to seek out a middle ground after two years of debate over whether to replace MCAS — short for Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System — with PARCC, which stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. PARCC was developed by a national consortium that includes Massachusetts.
MCAS has been used since 1998, and passage of the exam's English language and math portions became a high school graduation requirement in 2003. Science and technology tests were added in 2010.
Under Chester's plan, the state would transition to what he calls a next-generation MCAS that would be given for the first time in 2017. The new test would become a graduation requirement for the Class of 2019.
The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education scheduled a vote Tuesday on the recommendation.
PARCC is aligned with Common Core standards that have been adopted in about 40 states but have become a rallying point for critics who say the standards interfere with states' abilities to shape their own educational blueprints. Common Core supporters say the curriculum better prepares students for college and 21st century careers.
Massachusetts was a founding member of the consortium that developed PARCC, and would remain a member of that group under the commissioner's plan.
"The approach I have recommended lets us continue to benefit from the high-quality, next-generation PARCC assessment in which we've invested a great deal of time and effort," Chester wrote in his recommendation to the board. "But it also ensures that the assessment will reflect the Commonwealth's unique needs and concerns."
Massachusetts gave PARCC a test drive to help determine if it should replace MCAS as the state's primary educational assessment tool and graduation requirement for high school students.
In 2015, the state for the first time gave school districts the option of administering PARCC or MCAS to students in grades 3-8. Officials said 54 percent of districts statewide chose PARCC. All 10th graders were still required to take MCAS.
Results showed that students in grades 3-8 who took PARCC last spring were, on average, less likely to perform well on that test than those who took the traditional MCAS exams, officials said.
Eighty-eight percent of 10th graders in the Class of 2017 met the graduation requirement by passing MCAS on their first try last spring, a percentage that has remained steady for three years.
The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education has argued that PARCC is superior to MCAS in assessing English language skills and is preferable to MCAS in measuring math skills that are vital to college and career success. The group has cited studies showing more than one-third of Massachusetts high school graduates enroll in at least one remedial college course.
The Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank that opposes Common Core, argued that the state should revise and update MCAS and raise the passing score for the test rather than switch to PARCC. In a policy brief issued earlier this week, Pioneer said passing grades for PARCC would have to be set at levels to avoid large failure rates, resulting in a corresponding drop in academic performance.
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