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Early data shows low scores on new MCAS tests

Next-generation MCAS aims to capture college readiness Critics say project-based assessment is more meaningful

Jule Pattison-Gordon

The next-generation MCAS debuted this past spring for students statewide in grades 3-8, and early score projections from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education show that students did not fare well.

According to DESE’s initial projections, half of test-takers failed to meet expectations in english language arts and in math, a score that indicates additional academic assistance is either required or to be considered.

This year’s scores on the new test will be used only to establish a baseline expectation for a typical number of right or wrong answers. Otherwise, the low scores could have had severe repercussions, as a student must pass the MCAS in grade 10 in order to graduate, and the state ranks schools in part based on their MCAS results. Schools with poor enough rankings go into a turnaround process or risk state takeover.

Some education advocates, however, say the conversation around updating the standardized test is misguided, and that education improvement comes not from a new test, but rather from a different, more engaged model of learning.

“We’ve doubled down on the status-quo — an accountability system based on one high stakes standardized test,” said Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teacher’s Union. “There’s so much more to student learning, quality, than one test…. This was a missed opportunity for the state to have a much more meaningful accountability system.”

New MCAS, new results

DESE said the low scores on the new MCAS do not indicate that student learning declined, but rather that the new test captures different things. The next-generation MCAS puts more focus on critical thinking, applied knowledge and connecting reading and writing than the previous “legacy” MCAS did, so as to better predict college success, DESE states.

BTU president Tang agrees that it is common for scores to drop on any new tests, as students are not used to the format and manner of asking questions yet.

Is it better?

DESE notes that with the legacy MCAS, even high scores were a poor predictor of students’ success in college: One-third of students who enrolled in public higher education after passing the MCAS and graduating high school were assigned to remedial courses in college.

The next-generation MCAS is intended to be an improved indicator of a student’s college readiness and a school’s quality.

But Monty Neill of The National Center for Fair and Open Testing says the next-generation MCAS is not a step forward, as it blends elements of the original MCAS with the PARCC test, an exam that is not much more predictive of college success.

Neill points to a 2015 Mathematica Policy Research report commissioned by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Education that found that PARCC scores were only slightly more predictive than MCAS scores of a student’s ability to attain a B or need remedial courses in first-year college math, and was no better at predicting these for english language arts. High scores on both MCAS and PARCC tests were only a minor indicator of college success, explaining only 5 to 18 percent in the variation of first-year college grades, the report stated.

What are tests measuring?

Opponents of high-stakes standardized testing argue that such assessments are better at capturing test-taking skills or a school population’s socioeconomic status than instructor quality and student growth.

Tang and Neill say a major influencer of student performance on such tests is not classroom instruction, but access to outside-of-school resources and whether or not the student is low-income or has higher needs. For instance, English Language Learners often are required to take the MCAS before they have full proficiency in the language, which means their lower test scores could mask strong educational growth, Tang said.

A DESE spokeswoman, meanwhile, said that if students with fewer resources show lower performance on an achievement measurement, that in itself is valuable information that can help the state take action to help them reach a high level.

“Students need to know how to read and how to do math no matter what their income level,” she said.

Neill said standardized tests do not necessarily capture all that goes into high achievement.

“[Such a test] perpetuates idea that short-answer and multiple-choice questions on paper are the way to assess critical thinking, ability to plot data sets or be creative,” Neill said. “Even worse, because of the high stakes attached to the test in terms of graduation and rating for the school, there’s a huge pressure to ‘teach the test,’ which means kids aren’t going to get the deep learning that they deserve.”

High stakes

Another argument against current high-stakes test use is the belief that state and district efforts to help those schools with low test scores are actually counterproductive to school quality. The Boston Public Schools recently shuttered the Mattahunt Elementary School rather than risk letting the state take it over, and while many educators and activists welcome the influx of funds BPS sends to schools deemed in need of turnaround, educators and activists also have spoken against BPS’s tendency in turnaround schools to dismiss all staff, saying mass dismissals can disrupt practices that are effective but need more time or support to bring about the desired results.

“Really, the issue is not this test or that,” said Fair Test’s Lisa Guisbond. “It’s the way the test has been used and, as far as we know, will continue to be used, to misrepresent or misjudge school quality, and then, as we see in Boston in particular, to be used to punish and/or close schools — to label schools as failing and close them or put them into chaotic turnaround status.”

Alternative assessments

Guisbond and Neill said several strong models exist in New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts in which students are graded instead on in-depth, performance-based projects and schools evaluated based on factors other than test scores. In some such schools, student performance projects may include, for example, a 20-page history paper or science lab project. In one system, students receive feedback and a chance to rework their project if it does not pass — emphasizing revision, which Neill notes is a critical college skill.

DESE has received federal approval to change its school ranking system to expand the factors it assesses to include student attendance rates, ninth-grade success and students’ completion of broad and challenging curriculums. DESE also will make available to the public information on school characteristics such as provision of arts, physical education and community service courses, and career and technical education; access to advanced coursework and school climate reports.