One day this past spring, sixth graders at the Stacy Middle School in Milford took an unusual kind of test — one that looked and sounded more like a strategy game played in teams.
Small groups of students proposed and contemplated trades, shared design inventions and adapted to random "natural disasters."
They had to communicate with one another. They turned to teachers or classmates when stuck. And they could think out loud — in English or their home languages, which are mostly Spanish or Portuguese.
This was a so-called "performance assessment" in action. The test measures student learning, but it also helps to instruct and build engagement among students, according to Dan Cote, the teacher who designed it.
Cote, a social studies teacher at the Stacy, says the assessment is deliberately aligned to measure how well sixth graders are meeting part of the state’s history and social science content standards. In this case, students were asked to “describe the impact of encounters through trade, cultural exchange and conquest” along the Silk Road.
Afterward, students participated in a class-wide debriefing. "They reflect on the activity they did, and then they're connecting it to the background knowledge they have with ancient kingdoms,” Cote said.
For educators disillusioned with the MCAS — Massachusetts’ standardized test, taken annually by students in grades three through eight, as well as 10th graders — performance assessments can come as a great relief. And many hope they represent the future of assessment.
That’s especially true in Milford, which has a large and growing community of English learners driven in large part by immigration from Ecuador and Brazil.
The share of Milford students categorized as English learners has more than tripled in eight years: from 10.2% in 2015 to 31% in the current school year. Last year, only 3% to 5% of English learners in the district earned a passing score on the MCAS, defined as “meets expectations” or “exceeds expectations.”
Milford Assistant Superintendent Craig Consigli, who started teaching in Milford in 1997 as the MCAS was first being implemented, said that’s not surprising given the exam format — silent, solitary, closed-book — and the challenges of language learning.
Imagine if the situation were reversed, Consigli said. “I'm going to Brazil. I'm trying to learn the language. And I have to take this assessment in Portuguese at the end of the year. I just don't think that's going to go well, personally,” he said. “And we do that to our students all the time.”
Consigli said he believes some standardized testing is useful, but since it takes months to receive MCAS scores, they don't provide any insight to classroom educators about current students.
The MCAS launched in 1998 as a more exacting way to measure academic proficiency and growth across Massachusetts. The test was established in a landmark 1993 education bill, designed to boost funding and accountability in the state’s public schools.
Massachusetts is now one of just eight states that still requires students to pass a standardized test to graduate from public high schools. And since 2010, the state has used low MCAS scores as its primary justification for assuming control of three districts: Lawrence, Holyoke and Southbridge.
Consigli says it was the MCAS’ “high stakes,” in particular, that made him interested in a coalition called the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, which Milford joined in 2017.
The consortium comprises eight school districts that are trying out performance assessments as a more inclusive, and less intimidating, alternative to the MCAS. Other members include Boston, Revere, Wareham, Attleboro, Somerville, Winchester and Lowell.
The emerging alternative
Educators in Milford stressed that the MCAS feels distinctly out-of-step with the approach they use for most of the year.
For teacher Samantha Bonvino, that means cultivating a dynamic classroom, in which students work together, conduct research and ask for help.
“We prep them a certain way and then MCAS [testing] comes along, and we’re like, ‘Just kidding. Do it this way for two days, then we’ll go back to it,’ ” Bonvino said.
For the past six years, Milford has administered performance assessments, which feel like the MCAS’ antithesis: they are collaborative, multilingual, a bit noisy. The hope is that these alternative tests give more students — including English learners — a way to show what they know.
A 2020 report on New York City’s own performance-assessment consortium found that English learners at schools using those assessments were more likely to graduate from high school, and that students had better outcomes after graduation.
Milford’s performance assessments have included designing a public service announcement about personal finance, illustrating and comparing stories read in English class, or identifying various unmarked clear liquids to prove their chemistry know-how.
Instructional coach Alissa Holland once watched a student who struggled with traditional schoolwork come alive — and lead her classmates — during the chemistry exercise. “She said, ‘I feel like a real scientist,’ " Holland said. "That was just such a hook for me."
Holland admits one downside with performance assessments: that it takes work to design the assessments and that scoring can be subjective.
Is it time for the MCAS to evolve?
This year, districts' work with performance assessments is taking place amid mounting pushback against the MCAS.
Teachers’ unions, advocates and some lawmakers are pushing to pass a bill that would chip away at the MCAS’ dominant role in public school systems.
The Thrive Act would discontinue the use of the MCAS as a graduation requirement in high schools and end the practice of state takeovers in low-scoring districts. The bill — still without a formal hearing — is unlikely to pass soon.
But a crowd of hundreds gathered on Beacon Hill to rally behind it in mid-May. At that event, students and advocates told elected officials that both the graduation requirement and receiverships have discriminatory effects.
And there are signs that the state’s political leadership increasingly shares that concern.
Gov. Maura Healey campaigned explicitly on support for the MCIEA, and promised to examine reforms to the state’s assessment and accountability system that would better serve English learners.
And Rob Curtin, head of assessment for the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the state should offer the MCAS in multiple languages.
“We have an ever-growing population of students whose primary language is not English,” Curtin said at a May 11 panel hosted by the group Education Reform Now. “We should explore meeting them where they are in terms of their English language development.”
But Curtin stressed that, while the MCAS needs to be revamped, it shouldn’t be abandoned. He called it a “valuable tool,” and noted that some standardized testing is still required under state and federal law.
“To actually have these robust, intense, integrated, reliable performance assessments is a crazy heavy lift,” said Thabiti Brown, head of the Codman Academy Charter School in Boston, at the same Education Reform Now panel. “And so there's just a lot of work to be done.”
This segment aired on June 2, 2023.