State to pilot possible online MCAS replacement test

State education officials announced last week they are preparing to field test an online exam that may replace the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exams, according to a State House News Service (SHNS) article.

In a board meeting held September 24, state department of elementary and secondary education (DESE) officials said the new assessment program is set to launch with trial runs next spring at 1,250 schools, about 70 percent statewide.

The schools were picked randomly, but those that did not have the technology to do the online-based test were given the chance to opt out.

“To the best of my knowledge, we haven’t been picked,” superintendent of schools James Weiss told The Times in a phone conversation Wednesday.

Massachusetts is a member of a 20-state consortium that is building a next-generation assessment system, called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), to provide a better signal of students’ readiness for college and careers.

Massachusetts education officials and Gov. Deval Patrick agreed in 2010 to help create the PARCC test that is being developed by a 19-state alliance, including New York and New Jersey. Florida education officials are contemplating bowing out of the alliance, according to SHNS. The goal is to better gauge students’ readiness for college and careers.

When Massachusetts education officials signed up to develop the test, they stipulated they would adopt the PARCC assessments “provided they are at least as comprehensive and rigorous as our current MCAS assessments, if not more so.”

Massachusetts public high school students are among the top performing students in the nation, based on the 2013 MCAS results, according to a recent DESE press release. Despite strong overall performance, though, the average SAT scores for Massachusetts public high school students are flat over the past five years in critical reading and mathematics.

In a statement, Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said the flat scores made it “essential that we raise the profile of our key reforms that will ensure every high school student experiences a rigorous course of study to prepare her or him for success beyond high school.”

He said the MCAS, developed 15 years ago, needs to be updated, to give students, parents, and educators reliable signals about readiness for college or work.

“Right now our tests, particularly at the high school level, don’t do a good job at that,” he told SHNS. “They weren’t designed to tell students whether they are ready for the expectations of employers or colleges, and the evidence is that they are not doing a good job of giving students signals about that.”

For example, Mr. Chester said, 40 percent of all public high school graduates need to take a non-credit course in college to play catch-up.

The new online PARCC test, in math and English, requires critical thinking by students and more writing. MCAS science tests will remain the same.

Mr. Chester said he expects PARCC to be a stronger assessment program. Otherwise, Massachusetts would not be participating in its development, he told SHNS.

After a two-year rollout, Mr. Chester said education officials would make a final decision on whether to adopt the new PARCC online test or stick with MCAS.

When a board member asked what schools that are not equipped for an online test would do, education officials said there is a pencil and paper version. DESE is trying to get help at the federal and state levels to upgrade school technology, SHNS reported.

Education Secretary Matt Malone said there isn’t a mechanism to upgrade technology statewide, and education leaders need to be mindful of the technology disadvantages at schools before a full rollout of the test is adopted.