Pittsfield schools weigh pros, cons of new standardized test


PITTSFIELD -- Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless said this week he’s leaning toward recommending that Pittsfield schools shift to the PARCC student testing system and away from the MCAS system.

McCandless told School Committee members that Massachusetts school districts are being asked to choose by June 30 whether to stay with the familiar MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) or begin the switch to the PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) system during the 2014-15 school year.

Before making his recommendation to the board on June 25, the superintendent said he will await presentations on the testing by state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education officials on June 17 in Pittsfield. Sessions are planned for principals and administration officials, school committees and the public.

There are pros and cons to either system, McCandless said, but he sees the PARCC assessments -- intended to be taken online and to align with the Common Core curriculum the state has embraced -- as the wave of the future. Even if the state unexpectedly retains the MCAS system, those tests likely would adopt features already in the PARCC tests, he said, and they would be taken online.

Based on expected wide-scale use of the PARCC system during 2014-15, the state Board of Education is likely to vote on official adoption of the PARCC system in the fall of 2015.

PARCC tests, which were given on a pilot basis this year to 500 students in the Pittsfield schools, would at some point require the purchase of computers and other equipment and training for staff and students. But McCandless said that would occur over time, adding that younger students are familiar with computers and that trend is likely to accelerate in the future.

In addition, he said, DESE has said that PARCC test scores will not negatively affect any school system implementing PARCC next year. The scores for 2015-16 would be made public, but the system would be "held harmless" if scores drop from current levels or fail to meet state benchmarks or standards.

Because students and educators are familiar with the MCAS system, which began in 2001 and was revised in 2011, a drop in scores is possible, McCandless said. However, if the system begins here next year, Pittsfield students would be given a period of time to adjust to the new format, which involves more critical thinking and problem solving, he said.

Realistically, the rollout of the PARCC system will come in stages over three or four years, McCandless said. Next year, Pittsfield elementary students would participate, although students in Grades 5 and 8 would continue to take MCAS science and technology/engineering tests.

And high school students would continue to take science and technology/engineering, math and English MCAS.

In addition, McCandless said, individual elementary schools would have the option of taking PARCC tests on paper, rather than online during 2014-15.

"We will not be asking for any more money," McCandless said after the meeting. "To get all of the machines we would need to have all tested students take the online test would cost about $165,000, but we know that is not realistic. We see this as a three- to four-year work-up to being fully online capable."

The advantages of staying with the MCAS system, McCandless said, are that students and teachers know the system, and MCAS provides data that can be used for program or teacher evaluation. "It is the safe way to proceed; we already know it," he said.

But he added that a basic question is "Do we want to lead or follow on PARCC?"

To reach Jim Therrien:
or (413) 496-6247.
On Twitter: @BE_therrien


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