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Education officials may scrap MCAS test

Mass. developing new exam with other states; Questions linger about adopting US standard

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / May 20, 2010

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Massachusetts education officials are quietly putting together a proposal to scrap the controversial MCAS exams in English and math and replace them with new tests they are developing with about two dozen other states.

The proposal, described in a state memorandum obtained by the Globe, would represent a dramatic departure for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Officials have long regarded the 12-year-old MCAS exams and the academic standards on which they are based to be superior to other states.

Changing the testing system could force local schools to overhaul curriculums so that material on the exams is covered in class. It also could bring adjustments for students.

Like the MCAS, the proposed system would test students in English and math in grades 3 through 8 and grade 10, but it might add tests in grades 9 and 11. The new tests would be at least as rigorous as the MCAS tests, officials said. They could take effect for the 2014-2015 school year.

Massachusetts education officials, who have declined invitations by other states over the years to develop a common testing system, have warmed to the idea recently amid a push by the Obama administration for national standards. The standards would specify what is taught at each grade level and each state would decide whether to adopt them.

Massachusetts officials say they are optimistic the new national standards would be on par to those in this state so local schools may only have to do minor tinkering. They also say a shared testing system could reduce the approximately $35 million Massachusetts spends annually assessing more than 500,000 school children on the MCAS and other tests, although they do not yet know by how much.

Mitchell Chester, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, outlined the proposed switch in testing systems last Friday in the memorandum to the agency’s board, which is scheduled to discuss the proposal next week.

In the memo, Chester said the consortium of states, known as the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, “is best conceived and positioned to deliver the level of quality and rigor that the MCAS program has provided to our state.’’

Chester was not available for comment yesterday.

The prospect of changing the MCAS exams, a cornerstone of the state’s 1993 Education Reform Act, has unnerved some segments of the state’s education community. Educational specialists who believe the new national standards would be lower than the current state standards said yesterday the proposed change would represent a major setback for a state known to have among the most rigorous standards and testing system in the nation.

“Our standards and the MCAS are the lifeblood of the entire reform effort that began in ‘93,’’ said Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a public policy research group. “What’s our competitive advantage if we get rid of the high standards and the MCAS?’’

Other educational experts said they were open to the idea of switching to a shared testing system and national standards.

“If the tests are fair and reliable, we would say it’s a fine idea,’’ said Anne Wass, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

Debate over whether Massachusetts should abandon its MCAS tests and state standards for national standards has long been contentious. The national standards, an effort first spearheaded by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, aims to remedy an inequity in the US education system: Some states have set higher standards than other states.

Two months ago, Massachusetts education officials, who have been helping to develop the standards, expressed reservations about the rigor of some of the national standards when drafts were released, vowing not to adopt them if they didn’t measure up to Massachusetts.

That stance could have cost Massachusetts $250 million in federal funding in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition, which provides grants to overhaul schools. The state lost out during the first round of funding this spring, and a review panel raised doubts about Massachusetts’s commitment to adopting national standards. The state is preparing an application for a second round of funding next month.

Jeff Nellhaus, a state deputy education commissioner, said the national standards, under further revising, have moved even closer in alignment to Massachusetts. The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is expected to vote on the national standards this summer. It’s unclear whether the board would have to approve a switch in testing systems or whether the department could do it unilaterally.

Nellhaus emphasized that the new testing system is still in the “design phase.’’

The new exams would probably have a similar mix of multiple choice and open response questions, and passing the exams would still be a requirement for high school students, he said.

Massachusetts would still keep the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System to administer its science and technology exams, which high school students also must pass as a graduation requirement.

One hope for the resulting system, Nellhaus said, is to move testing onto computers rather than relying strictly on test booklets, which could yield considerable cost savings in printing and shipping of materials. In the past two years, the education department has seen its MCAS budget shrink by about $4 million.

Developing a new testing system based on the national standards surprised associations that represent school committees and superintendents, because the state board has made no decision on adopting the national standards.

“I don’t see it as something better or worse, but as something different,’’ said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. “One might wonder whether this discussion is designed to make the Race to the Top application look more enticing.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.

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