If you have any stake in public education, you have likely heard that the future of standardized testing is under heavy scrutiny. Each year for the past 17 years in Massachusetts, first- through eighth-graders and 10th-graders have been given
the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) to gauge what they know in English language arts (ELA), math and science. Right now the state is in the middle of a two-year “test drive” of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), an all-new exam that if adopted would replace the math and ELA portions of the MCAS.
As is often the case involving issues affecting public education and specifically about what’s best for children, widely differing opinions about the testing change – and the incredibly combustible topics of the Common Core State Standards Initiative and high-stakes testing – have been passionately expressed in the media, in classrooms and at kitchen tables across the state. With the abundance of information out there, and because of all the many voices and viewpoints, it’s been challenging to gain a clear perspective of what these tests are and where we are in the process of adopting them. Yet it’s crucial for parents of school-aged children and even younger to remain informed because somewhere beyond the political fodder over finances, logistics and motives, a decision is coming that’s going to impact education in Massachusetts for years to come.
Massachusetts currently ranks No. 1 in the nation in education, and it has achieved tremendous success with the rigorous MCAS state assessment in place. However, Jacqueline Reis, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, says while MCAS has been a very good exam, it’s also dated. “It doesn’t do everything an assessment can do these days,” she says. “It also wasn’t designed specifically to test what’s on the Common Core curriculum framework, which we adopted back in 2010.”
Reis says the MCAS falls short in capturing critical thinking elements and doesn’t give as strong an indication whether kids are on track in terms of college readiness as the computer-based PARCC can. “You can do things that are harder to do with paper and pencil. It should speed the process along in terms of turning around results,” she says of the potential advantages, adding evaluation will be ongoing and there’s lots to be worked out along the way.
Massachusetts is one of 18 states working collaboratively to develop PARCC, and began administering field tests in randomly selected districts last spring. This year, districts statewide are choosing individually whether to give PARCC or MCAS. Regardless of whether PARCC is officially adopted next fall, the MCAS will remain a graduation requirement for high school students through 2019.
At the center of the debate about testing is whether PARCC can fulfill its promise of aligning with the new Common Core standards and provide a more fair, insightful and accurate student assessment. Other common concerns with PARCC range from the ability to maintain control over educational standards while working within a consortium of states to whether it will be more disruptive to regular classroom instruction. MCAS is strictly a paper and pencil exam given once a year in an untimed session. PARCC is a timed test administered in an all-digital environment (although a paper and pencil version is currently available). It is taken in two parts: one in March and a follow-up in May.
Beyond the question of content, bridging the technology gap poses many of PARCC’s most daunting challenges. Namely, how schools with limited funds and resources will be able to realistically administer a computer-based assessment. And how successfully students with different levels of experience with computers will adapt to online testing.
Eric Conti, Ph.D., superintendent of Burlington Public Schools, says when his district was randomly selected to take the test, it was limited to four classrooms in four different schools and administered as a paper and pencil test. Since Burlington is a “one-to-one” district, meaning every student from grade one through 12 has access to a web-enabled device, Conti saw the opportunity to really test the logistics of an all-digital assessment.
Says Conti, “We’re the highest performing state in the country. We have no concerns about the high quality of teaching and learning that’s happening in our district and across our schools. I had a very practical and logistical concern with implementing an online test.” After some lobbying, he won the approval for a district-wide, all-student, all-online trial.
Jeffrey Marsden, superintendent of Medfield Public Schools, who has a doctorate of education and whose district also piloted PARCC, notes, “The biggest concern we had was the technology piece. It was really about getting (that) right and seeing how the kids were going to respond.”
While his district is already relatively advanced in integrating technology in the classroom and is one-to-one from grade six on, Marsden feels his concerns as to whether districts are really ready with technology are fairly universal. He also says, “Anytime you can get kids doing something that they are used to, like working on computers, that’s a positive. Because it’s high-interest, it’s engaging; and I think kids enjoy it more than working with paper and pencil.”
Marsden reports his high school students felt PARCC was an overall fair assessment; however, things were a bit more complicated in lower grades where it may have been a child’s first experience testing on a computer. “That’s a whole set of skills in itself … so I think it’s something kids will need to work on prior to taking PARCC,” he says.
Conti agrees, adding he doesn’t think integrating technology should be done just for the state test, but rather because it’s what’s best. Reis echoes that, saying, “We think the technology should be there not so much for the tests, but because you need it to do 21st-century teaching and learning.”
For some, especially those fundamentally against annual testing and the Common Core in general, it’s been understandably difficult to look at PARCC’s trial objectively. A lot has been made over the apparent shortcoming in the digital interface, structure and quality of the content and any technological mishaps that occurred along the way. While there’s been sustained and often boisterous voices of opposition, many others have taken a more pragmatic, wait-and-see approach.
“I think some parents were really upset about the whole test itself – the concept of it and the Common Core standards,” says Marsden, confessing he only received a few phone calls from parents. “The fact that it was a trial, I think most folks looked at it like, ‘We’ll check it out, try to get the bugs and see what goes on in the future.’ We were basically just testing the test. You wouldn’t expect it to be perfect the first time around.”
Reis agrees that adjustments will need to be made. “We have the experience from last spring’s field tests that have shown us some tips that will help make things smoother,” she says. “In some cases it sounds like the technology was not as disruptive to the students as it was to the teachers. There are things the teachers will have to learn to do. We’ll make them as easy as possible. But no, it won’t be exactly the same as MCAS.”
Says Conti, “It’s a state test that’s in the early stages of development. Seventeen years ago when MCAS was first introduced, there were a lot of the same problems and it had almost two decades to evolve. I think whatever state test we use is going to have similar growing pains.”
As we move closer to the department of education’s deadline on whether or not to adopt PARCC, both Conti and Marsden fear the decision ultimately may be more political than educational. “Modernizing our assessments only makes sense. I just don’t want the conversation about the test to distract from what is it we want kids to learn,” says Conti.
He wonders whether people need to focus less on the assessment itself and more about what the test is assessing. “We always need to go back to the standards. If they are expecting third-graders to do complex fractions, no matter what the state test is, the heavy lifting isn’t the kids doing the test. The heavy lifting is instructing the kids on how to do the content.”
Marsden says one of his main concerns is the benchmarking that’s being done between states. “Sometimes I wonder if we can refine what we’re doing or become a best practice for others, instead of having to change what we do in line with everyone else,” he says. “Let’s not forget all the hard work that’s been happening in the last 20 years in education in Massachusetts. It’s not an accident we’re number one. We did a lot of things correctly. Our teachers are doing well, our parents are supporting education, kids are working hard – so I think that’s important to keep in mind.”
As for which way he is leaning regarding adoption of PARCC, Marsden says he isn’t sure yet. “From my perspective, it’s about making the best test possible that gauges how students are doing and allows us to inform our instruction and keep improving. Whatever that mechanism is, there’s lots of different ways of doing that.”
Reis says the state’s Department of Education is taking into account all factors, including feedback from districts, parents, teachers and students. Perhaps her biggest challenge is keeping everyone informed. “I’ve heard from people being concerned and wanting more information,” she says. “We’ve tried to put as much information out there as we can, and I think people always need more.”
Conti notes that having that opportunity to collaborate with the Department of Education has been a plus. “Because PARCC is so new and we’re sort of working through all the mistakes and development together, they’ve been a real partner and ally in this,” he says. “They’re learning as well. They’re working to solve things and they’re listening. It’s changed their role with districts and I think it’s a real positive.”
Marsden perhaps best summarizes what the majority of those who don’t have any political skin in the game hope for: “Out of all these discussions and all these arguments and this side and that side, what we can’t forget is schools are there to do what’s best for kids each and every day and make sure they learn. We can’t lose that in the conversation.”