MCAS or PARCC: Berkshire schools evenly split between state tests

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This spring, for the first time in more than 20 years, not all of the commonwealth's public school students will be taking exams under the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System.

Piloted last year in select schools and grades, new 21st-century mathematics and English language arts exams developed under the multi-state Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), will be fully implemented by 54 percent of the state's public school districts serving students in Grades 3 through 8, starting March 16. This includes approximately 220,000 students, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

In Berkshire County, the testing split is about 50-50, with 10 districts sticking with MCAS and nine moving forward with PARCC. Since PARCC tests are only available for the subjects of ELA and math, MCAS tests in the subject areas of reading, biology, and science, technology and engineering are still be used in applicable grades.

The use of PARCC and other standardized exams have spurred deep divisions over not only which tests are the most effective way to evaluate a student's readiness for the 21st century, but also whether testing costs, in terms of time, money, effort, training and resources, outweigh the benefits of having such student data.

With the two standardized testing systems being used simultaneously this year, the state will have solid data and results with which to weigh the effectiveness of the different exams.

"After this spring, we'll have a very complete set of data to compare performance," said state DESE Commissioner Mitchell Chester in a recent interview with The Eagle.

Over the past month's time, several new reports about standardized testing in Massachusetts have been released. And nationally there have been student and parent protests of the exams coming out of the multi-state PARCC consortium. According to Chester, the state is taking all feedback, reports and results into consideration, as it continues to gauge which set of exams best indicates how well students are prepared and on track for success in the future.

This fall, the state DESE expects to bring a recommendation to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to vote on whether the state will continue to use MCAS ELA and mathematics exams or will switch to the next generation testing system developed by the PARCC.

In February, the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE) and The National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment (The Center for Assessment) published a report called: "Educating Students for Success: A Comparison of the MCAS and PARCC Assessments as Indicators of College- and Career-Readiness."

Though no school or district performance data was published from last spring's pilot of the PARCC tests, the MBAE commissioned its report to find out whether the new tests could provide a "true measure of what is required to be ready for higher education and the workforce," according to a preface in the published report.

"Employers are very concerned that our skills gaps are symptoms of a lack of alignment to what schools are teaching and testing," said MBAE Executive Director Linda M. Noonan — who also happens to be an alumna of Pittsfield High School.

"MCAS, to no surprise, is not a college and career readiness indicator," Noonan said, and, as noted in the report, that's because it was never designed to.

"The passing score on the 10th grade MCAS test represents the minimum level of proficiency that all students have to meet to be eligible for a high school diploma," the executive summary of the MBAE study states.

The PARCC exams are designed to be aligned with the national Common Core curriculum standards, which were rolled out in the commonwealth during the 2012-13 academic year.

"What we've heard from employers in a poll we conducted about a year ago is that students need the ability to apply the knowledge they've learned," Noonan said, but businesses aren't finding that in high school and college graduates.

"[The students] can't communicate, can't solve a problem, can't manage time," she said.

When they talk about education reform, organizations like the MBAE, the state and even federal officials often cite statistics from a 2009 DESE report finding that 37 percent of the state's graduates of 2005, who went on to public colleges in Massachusetts, enrolled in at least one remedial subject during their first semester in college; 15 percent enrolled in at least two.

"There needed to be a system change," Noonan said.

But with change comes a whole new set of issues to tackle.

Locally and nationally, there's a lack of buy-in from some parents and educators when it comes to PARCC and high-stakes standardized testing in general.

At a recent North Adams School Committee meeting, members and Superintendent James Montepare expressed their frustrations with testing and other state education reform policies and mandates currently being implemented.

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Montepare noted that there are cumulatively 70 days in a school year tied up with MCAS and teacher evaluations. Under the PARCC system, testing will happen twice a year, designed to get a better indication of how students perform and change throughout the school year.

The School Committee unanimously voted to lend its support to the Pioneer Valley-based Western Massachusetts Education Leaders Coalition, which is concerned with the impact of unfunded state education mandates; the validity, reliability and implementation of PARCC exams, and the amount and frequency of high stakes testing on their districts. It is estimated that the state currently spends about $35 million annually to administer MCAS exams.

In other PARCC states like Illinois, parents are protesting and working to opt-out students from the exams, though a recent editorial in the Chicago Tribune likened the opt-out movement to the anti-vaccination movement, noting that not testing kids can do more harm than good.

On March 3, the Boston-based Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy issued a report called, "Testing the Test: A Study of PARCC Field Trials in Two Districts" based on a case study examining the spring 2014 in-depth PARCC pilot in the school districts of the commonwealth's town of Burlington and city of Revere.

Though both online and print versions of the PARCC exams are available and being used by schools, the push, as a 21st-century testing system, is that the PARCC tests eventually be completely administered in online formats.

"The experiences of Burlington and Revere provide crucial information on implementation issues such as technology use and device adaptability, scheduling and staffing of test administration, and students' experience taking computer-based tests," said Rennie Center Executive Director Chad d'Entremont in a statement issued with the new report's release.

The cost and availability of technology are highlighted by the schools studied in the Rennie Center report and also were expressed by Noonan on behalf of the MBAE.

"Schools are woefully behind in use of technology," Noonan said. "Going forward, [schools] have to make good choices about technology so that it's not just about the gadgets but that they use it to enhance and not replace pencil and paper work," she said.

Noonan added that up-front investment in technology could yield long-term savings, but that, "we do need good cost numbers on PARCC."

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Burlington and Revere school officials also remain concerned about the transition to an online technology-based testing system, citing factors of how test scheduling depends "almost entirely on the inventory, type and location of available devices used for test administration," whether that be tablets, desktop or laptop computers. In addition, staff need to be well-trained on how to troubleshoot technological issues and managing student data and testing results using new software that has to be installed on all the school's testing devices.

Commissioner Chester also agreed that school technology can be costly and currently is not equitably up to par in schools across the commonwealth.

"We need to provide [schools] 21st-century classrooms," he said.

Still, with a new leaders in state government and evolving statewide education agenda, Chester said he's confident that the state will be able to meet these new educational standards, from technology to testing.

"We're a state that has made education a priority during one of the greatest recessions of our time," Chester said.

"PARCC exams have the potential to be less costly than MCAS, and we're seeing more and more schools and districts able to provide access [to technology]. I think this is the future," he said.

Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.



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