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Officials get taste of MCAS, PARCC

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Officials get taste of MCAS, PARCC
Senators Linda Dorcena Forry and William Brownsberger tried a sample of MCAS and PARCC test questions.

Last week, Massachusetts state legislators and other officials sat down with number two pencils and spent 45 minutes working through a sampling of the kind of standardized tests high school students must pass to graduate.

“It was quite stressful,” said Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, stepping out of the testing room.

Members of Youth Organizers for the Now Generation, an organization that includes Boston Student Advisory Council, Youth On Board and Boston Youth Organizing Project, organized a “Take the Test” event for officials to try PARCC and MCAS questions in a similar exam environment. The high school students hoped the experience would persuade officials that placing high stakes on these test scores is problematic.

“If people want to set up a test for us and our future, then they should take them,” said Ian McSorley, age 19, a student at Boston Day and Evening Academy, one of the organizers of the event.

Passing the grade 10 MCAS is a current graduation requirement and the state plans ultimately to replace this test with a new MCAS — commonly dubbed “MCAS 2” — that will include elements of PARCC.

Students and some officials at the event argued that the tests punish those who have different learning styles or high school curriculums and that the tests may fail to measure skills necessary for future success. Hinging graduation and school performance levels on those test scores creates an unproductively high level of anxiety, they said. McSorley supports a bill sponsored by Rep. Marjorie Decker and currently in committee that would put a three-year moratorium on PARCC and remove the high-stakes element of MCAS.

Meanwhile, some supporters of high-stakes standardized tests say the tests are critical assessment tools for determining that all students are being taught to common standards and that if graduation was not riding on performance, students would not take the tests seriously.

Turning out to try the exams were Rahn Dorsey, Boston chief of education; Sen. Pat Jehlen; Rep. Marjorie Decker; Sen. Dorcena Forry; Sen. William Brownsberger and an aide from Decker’s office.

Too stressed for success

The point of standardized tests is to hold all schools to providing a sufficient level of education and to ensure that students are not graduating unprepared. But opponents of high-stakes testing say there are other ways to assess performance and uphold graduation standards without putting so much pressure on one exam.

Students charged that the stress of so much riding on a single test makes it makes it difficult to perform well, regardless of how well they may have done in school.

“When I take a test, I black out,” said Fania Joseph, a sophomore at Boston Community Leadership Academy.

McSorley and Decker — who said she found the test similarly stressful — raised concerns that the intimidation factor may be counterproductive, by inspiring some students to give up and repeat a year or drop out. Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest, said those fears are grounded.

“A lot of research nationally shows that having high school exit tests increases drop out rate, feeds the school to prison pipeline, causes expansion in incarceration,” he said.

But in Sen. Brownsberger’s view, the magnitude of the tests is critical to their accuracy as assessment tools.

“If it wasn’t a graduation requirement, people wouldn’t take it seriously at all,” he said.

Failed predictor?

Opponents of high-stakes testing also argued that the structure and usage of the particular standardized tests employed in Massachusetts do not accurately capture whether a student is prepared for life after high school, and so holding them back for not doing well on it is not productive.

“People who studied [high school exit tests] in depth find no evidence it improves either college-going or employment outcome,” said FairTest’s Neill.

According to Rep. Decker , among students who pass the MCAS and graduate, one-third go to community college and are placed in remedial courses.

Among the issues: Top scorers may be the most skilled at test-taking, but not necessarily know the material best. Decker and Dorcena Forry said that the test seemed to make unnecessary use of confusing phrasing and jargon — meaning they were being assessed on their ability to parse the idiosyncratic questioning style, not solely their subject matter knowledge.

“It seems like it’s using language to trick you,” Decker said.

The test also may be more favorable to a particular style of learner: those who process best through reading.

“I’m more of an auditory and tactile learner,” Decker said. She added, “It hasn’t been an obstacle to my [life] success.”

Some may interpret this not as a need to do away with high-stakes testing, but as a need to improve the test.

Teaching the test, for good or ill

With schools’ rankings dependent in part on test scores, there comes the risk that too much time will be spent focusing on test preparation, letting other important topics slide.

Sandra Stotsky is a member of the advisory board for Pioneer Institute’s Center for School Reform and former senior associate commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Education. She said that, with educators calling for extended learning time, it does not make sense to shorten instruction time by using it for test prep.

“I don’t see much value in spending a lot classroom instructional time in preparing kids to take [Common Core-based] tests, because kids in Boston, like anywhere else, need more instruction time,” Stotksy said. She believes little test preparation is needed with the current MCAS, but that the MCAS 2 requires a burdensome amount because it is computer-based.

In a Nov. 2015 letter to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Commissioner Mitchell Chester wrote that the solution to losing time to test prep is to create a test where the way to prepare for it is by providing high-quality education. He said that the computer skills required by the forthcoming MCAS 2 mean that students learn technical abilities they will need after high school.

“The computer-based setting mirrors the digital world that is ubiquitous in students’ current and future lives,” Chester wrote.

Curriculum mismatch

Joseph and McSorely said that in some schools, the standardized tests and curriculum do not match up well. McSorley said local teachers should not be obliged to change their classes to follow what distant test-companies decided that students need to know.

“Someone who doesn’t even set foot in your classroom decides what you should be learning,” he said. “Our teachers should be the ones who decide if we pass with a final, not a test that may not fit our curriculum.”

Members of both sides of the issue have said that teachers must not limit themselves to what is on the test, as no exam can capture all skills needed for life.