Online exam could replace MCAS test Valley students to be part of trial run

MALDEN — State education officials are preparing to field test an online exam that appears poised to replace the MCAS student achievement test.

However, some Board of Elementary and Secondary Education members have questions about the switch.

Schools in the Merrimack Valley will be among the more than 1,200 taking part in a trial run of the exams.

About a dozen Haverhill schools will be taking the proposed MCAS replacement exam later this school year as part of the statewide trial run, Haverhill Superintendent James Scully said yesterday.

Methuen Superintendent Judy Scannell also said her district is participating in the statewide pilot, and that she expects final confirmation of which grades and schools by Dec. 1.

Developed 15 years ago, the MCAS was not designed with college and career-readiness in mind, state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education officials said during a board meeting yesterday. The new assessment program, set to launch with trial runs at 1,250 schools, is designed to move schools in that direction, they said.

The new test, in math and English, is aimed at evaluating the ability of students to think critically about questions and requires more writing. It also includes literary analysis, research abilities, and diagnostic assessment, according to education officials. MCAS science tests will remain the same.

Scully said he is waiting to see the results of the field testing before forming an opinion on the new exam.

“Right now the state education commissioner and others are advocating for the new test, but I and other superintendents are withholding judgement until we see the results of field testing going on in a number of school systems, including Haverhill,” Scully said.

Superintendent/Receiver Jeffrey Riley, who is working to improve Lawrence public schools, had mixed feeling about the change being considered.

“While I believe moving to the new Common Core assessment system will ultimately be beneficial for our students, it comes at a less than ideal time for our district,” Riley said last night.

“Nonetheless, we have great teachers and administrators in this district that will embrace the challenge,” he said. “As a strong proponent of the MCAS, which I believe was the most rigorous testing system in the country, I look forward to seeing if, and confirming that, this new system is even more challenging.’’

The latest MCAS test results released last week showed Lawrence schools made dramatic improvements during their first full year under state receivership. The district exceeded its first year District Turnaround Plan goal of doubling the number of schools in which students outperformed their academic peers, as eight schools had a so-called Student Growth Percentile (SGP) higher than 50 in both English language arts and math compared to three schools last year. Overall, 21 out of 24 schools improved in math and 15 out of 24 schools improved in English.

State Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said the MCAS needs to be updated.

“We know more about assessment today than we did 15 years ago when we developed MCAS,’’ he said. “It is time to upgrade our assessment program and to take advantage of new technologies that are available.’’

State education officials and Gov. Deval Patrick agreed in 2010 to help create the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) test that is being developed by a 19-state alliance, including New York and New Jersey. Florida education officials are contemplating bowing out of the alliance.

When they signed up to develop the test, education officials stipulated Massachusetts would adopt PARCC “provided they are at least as comprehensive and rigorous as our current MCAS assessments, if not more so.”

Chester said he expects PARCC to be a stronger assessment program.

“We wouldn’t be participating in the development if we weren’t committed to that outcome,” he said.

The move away from MCAS marks a shift in testing philosophies. Chester said one of the reasons for changing the test is to give students, parents and educators reliable signals about their readiness for college or work.

“Right now our tests, particularly at the high school level, don’t do a good job at that,” he said. “They weren’t designed to tell students whether they are ready for the expectations of employers or colleges, and the evidence is that they are not doing a good job of giving students signals about that.”

For example, he said, 40 percent of all public high school graduates need to take a non-credit course in college to play catch-up.

One board member questioned the change and another worried that schools are not equipped for an online test.

Ruth Kaplan, a board member from Brookline, questioned why the state would change if officials determined PARCC was only “as good as” MCAS. Board member Harneen Chernow from Jamaica Plain said she worries how students at schools with a limited number of computers will score compared to students in districts that have more access to technology. There is a paper-and-pencil version, education officials said.

Chester said “this is not a trivial issue,” and there are schools in the state where there isn’t even a broadband connection available.

DESE is trying to get help at the federal and state levels to upgrade school technology. Chester said education officials are talking to the Massachusetts School Building Authority and lawmakers on the House and Senate Ways and Means committees to secure state funds.

Education Secretary Matt Malone said there isn’t a mechanism to upgrade technology statewide, and education officials must be mindful of the technology disadvantages at schools before a full rollout of the test is adopted.

After a two-year rollout, education officials will make a final decision on whether to adopt the PARCC test or stick with the MCAS. Chester said he expects the new test to become the standard for evaluating student achievement.

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