Next month, the Board of Education will decide on which student assessment system Massachusetts will use: MCAS, the standardized tests in ELA, Math, and Science that have been in place since Education Reform in 1993, or the newer PARCC test, developed collaboratively by educational leaders from multiple states to measure students’ progress in meeting the Common Core standards.
I am often asked my opinion on which assessment I would choose. My answer is this: I will back the assessment that 1) emphasizes the development of higher order thinking skills, application of knowledge to new situations, reasoning in Math, and strong writing skills across all content areas; 2) provides districts, schools, teachers, and families with valuable information to continuously improve student learning; 3) uses 21st century technology (because that is what are students are using and will need in the future); 4) minimizes interruption to daily instruction as much as is possible; and 5) is tightly aligned with the standards taught in Massachusetts schools.
Right now, the assessment that best meets these criteria is PARCC. The Commissioner of Education announced yesterday that he is interested in a plan to develop an MCAS 2.0 – a “next generation” MCAS, if you will – one that will live up to the quality of the PARCC test, but provide some autonomy to Massachusetts to shape our own assessment. If they are successful in doing so, I am fine with this course of action. Again, it is the criteria I cite in the previous paragraph that I believe to be of critical importance, not the owner of the test design. The Common Core State Standards provide the rigor for critical thinking, reasoning, and application; good instruction will prepare our students for any quality assessment that is tightly aligned with these standards.
In 2014-15, districts were allowed to choose whether to administer MCAS or PARCC in grades 3-8, with an option to pilot PARCC in grades 9-11. The Wakefield Public Schools chose to implement PARCC in all of these grades except for grade 10, as districts continue to be required to implement MCAS as a graduation requirement. In a year in which districts were held “harmless”, WPS students (except grade 9 ELA) took the PARCC tests online to give students and teachers the opportunity to experience the academic and technology infrastructure challenges. Overall, the schools reported a relatively smooth testing experience and pride in our students’ efforts.
As the Board of Education nears their decision, their focus should remain on selecting (or developing) a statewide assessment system that is minimally intrusive to instructional time and one that provides us with the imperative, quality data we need to continuously improve teaching and learning in our schools.