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The Rebooted MCAS Exam Rekindles The Debate Around Testing

Will Mass. choose to go with the MCAS, PARCC, or a hybrid test? (AP Photo/Ty Wright, File)
Will Mass. choose to go with the MCAS, PARCC, or a hybrid test? (AP Photo/Ty Wright, File)

Starting this week, some students across Massachusetts will take a new standardized test.

It's called MCAS 2.0, and it's a hybrid of the state's highly regarded MCAS exam, which debuted in 1998, and the newer PARCC test. PARCC is aligned with the national Common Core standards, which Massachusetts recently adopted.

MCAS 2.0 has supporters as well as detractors — like the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), the state's largest teachers' union, which is pushing legislation to suspend all high-stakes testing for three years.

Radio Boston host Meghna Chakrabarti spoke with Mitchell Chester, commissioner of the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and Barbara Madeloni, president of the MTA, about the shape of the new test and the state of high-stakes testing in Massachusetts. (The transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.)

Meghna Chakrabarti: Give us the headline. What's different about the new MCAS, and what makes it MCAS 2.0?

Mitchell Chester: So we've upgraded a test that's 20 years old at this point. We know a lot more now about what it takes for a young person to succeed. It involves reasoning, thinking critically, communicating clearly, applying your math skills, being able to do research, to compare and contrast multiple perspectives. Our next-generation test, which we're giving for the first time this spring, puts a lot of emphasis on those critical skills.

Chakrabarti: More specifically: how different is it from MCAS? Or how different is it from the Common Core-aligned PARCC test? Is it 50/50?

Chester: It differs by grade and subject, but it's roughly 50/50. It's been designed by Massachusetts educators. Each step of the way, they reviewed all of the test specifications — what we call a 'blueprint' for the test. So our teachers have made sure that this assessment is very much aligned with our learning goals in Massachusetts, and not somebody else's assessment. It's an evolution from what was a very successful, very high-quality 20th-century test to, now, a 21st-century assessment.

Chakrabarti: I want to turn to possibly one of the most powerful, or outspoken, criticisms of the new test,. We spoke a little earlier with Barbara Madeloni. She is the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which has backed legislation to put a three-year moratorium on high-stakes testing across the state.

I asked her what her concerns are with this new version of MCAS.

Barbara Madeloni has been president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association since May 2015. (Courtesy Barbara Madeloni/Vimeo)
Barbara Madeloni has been president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association since May 2015. (Courtesy Barbara Madeloni/Vimeo)

Madeloni: The concerns that we have for the new tests are the same as the concerns that we had for the old test. The use of high-stakes testing to determine student learning, to assess the quality of teaching, and to assess what's happening in schools and districts is entirely and completely off the mark. It really uses the smallest, most meaningless measure of teaching and learning, and it puts enormous value on it.

Chakrabarti: Many people would say that following the 1993 ed-reform law in this state, one of the reasons why Massachusetts's public schools were held to be amongst the best in the nation is that not only did the state decide to put more money into schools, but that they wedded that with higher standards and accountability.

MCAS was a big part of that — it was the way to measure whether or not schools were meeting the new standards. So rather than saying that it's "the smallest, most meaningless measure," people might say it was a very meaningful measure!

Madeloni: I would say that what happens is what you assess becomes what you value. What makes Massachusetts's schools wonderful is not our high test scores. When you talk to parents, students, and educators about what makes a school great, they actually don't talk about testing. There are much more complex nuances of community and relationship and creativity and opportunity and challenges. That's what makes schools wonderful.

Chakrabarti: Within each individual classroom, I think most people would absolutely agree with you. But what about when we look at the macro level? A lot of people look at standardized testing as one way to measure achievement gaps across different groups and regions of the state. It really allows educators to focus more like a laser on those specific areas where there is a gap. How else would we do that, if not for testing?

Madeloni: Teaching and learning about education is distorted to the degree that we impose efficiency models on it. So any question that we have about what's happening in our schools and our districts really needs to allow for more complexity and less efficiency.

Just like democracy, it needs to allow for more voices, for more perspectives, for an analysis of a wide range of considerations. And the same, especially, holds true looking at institutional racism. We're not going to solve the question of racism through testing.

In fact, the testing has re-segregated our schools — because the thing we know about testing is that it's most highly correlated with the income of families. So why are we using this instrument to prove that we have a problem with economic and racial justice?

Chakrabarti: You mentioned the messy work of democracy. One view of how Massachusetts arrived at MCAS 2.0 is that it was kind of a democratic process. The state had a huge amount of input.

There were many teachers and parents on various working committees and that's why we have this MCAS 2.0 — kind of a compromise. So why not accept that this messy outcome, which may not be exactly what the MTA wants, is nevertheless the best for the state?

Madeloni: I don't think I'm just speaking for the MTA. And I do not feel that it was a deeply democratic process. Because the question was never asked: "What are some other ways that we could assess what's happening in our schools?"

There was only one question that was asked,  which was, "What test do you want to use?" As an example of how undemocratic this process is, we have a movement of parents and educators who are working to resist high-stakes testing. And some of them are wanting to opt their students out of the high-stakes testing, which is entirely and completely legal in Massachusetts. Districts have to give the test, but individuals don't have to take the test.

When we queried the commissioner recently about this policy, because of inconsistent information that parents were receiving, his message to us was really punitive. It had implications of illegality, and threats that were stunning to me.

Chakrabarti: Specifically what?

Madeloni: Specifically, he implied in his memo that it is illegal [to opt out]. That's what principals and superintendents have been telling parents, and it's patently false. It is not illegal. Here are people saying, "We have a question," and their response is to shut people down. It is so troubling to me.

Chakrabarti: Let's turn back to Mitchell Chester, Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education. Mitchell Chester, Barbara Madeloni made a quite strong assertion there, implying that you've said that it's illegal for parents to opt out of having kids take the MCAS 2.0, or any of these statewide standardized tests. What's your response to that?

Chester: First of all, I haven't used the word "illegal." There is no provision to opt out. Parents have in the past had their students refuse to take the test... That's always been part of the landscape. I would offer a couple of comments on Barbara Madeloni's statements.

Chakrabarti: Hang on. Let me jump in here, because I'm seeing a March 6 memo where you wrote, "Neither the Commonwealth nor Congress provides an opt-out provision"?

Chester: That is absolutely correct. There is no provision to opt out, to choose whether or not to participate. Again, historically, there have been a handful of students and families that have refused to take that test — and that goes back almost 20 years in the history of the testing program.

Chakrabarti: I know it sounds like a matter of semantics, but I think a lot of parents might be confused. Can they have their children choose to not take the MCAS 2.0?

Chester: You know, Meghna, we don't allow kids, students, to opt out of certain classes, or let them skip out on turning in homework. And the assessment program is part of the statewide program. So if a parent refuses, they refuse. We don't force a student to take the test. But there's not a provision. It's not an optional part of the school program.

Chakrabarti: Let's get to another major point that Barbara Madeloni underscored, and I've heard many teachers and educators say also. They just do not see testing as a meaningful measure of student learning. Fundamentally, that is their underlying concern, and why they wish for a moratorium on all high-stakes testing in Massachusetts.

Chester: We're assessing in learning goals for students in Massachusetts, what students are learning every day. Schools that have a strong academic program are schools where students are going to do well on these assessments. The results help our children's teachers identify strengths and weaknesses in their curriculum and their instructional methods. It allows teachers and administrators to make adjustments to the program of study.

We know which schools are succeeding where others are not. And we're paying very close attention to those schools. We have some schools that are serving high-poverty populations that are getting much stronger results than schools that are not. And we're paying attention to the work that those schools are doing.

And it's paying very strong dividends. I could cite a number of districts: I think case number one would be the Lawrence school district. One of the lowest-performing, highest-poverty districts in the state, six years ago, that at this point in time is just making tremendous progress as a result of the interventions that we put in place.

This spring, only third- through eighth-graders will take the next-generation MCAS test. The state's plan is to administer computer-based testing across all grades statewide by 2019.

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