Vote for statewide school assessment system looms

Martha’s Vineyard students have experience with the PARCC and the MCAS.

The All-Island School Committee approved splitting the director of student support services position into two. — Michael Cummo

A vote next month by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) could usher in changes to statewide school assessment testing. School officials are set to vote on Nov. 17 whether to maintain the long-used Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) or switch to the national Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam.

Last spring, the second year of a two-year pilot program, school districts had the choice to administer either the PARCC or the MCAS. Martha’s Vineyard schools opted to participate in a PARCC pilot program, which did not count toward school accountability scores, and administered the test to all Island elementary school students in third through eighth grade. The prospect of a change in the state’s assessment policy influenced the decision to administer the PARCC, school assistant superintendent Richie Smith told The Times.

“If PARCC was to be our accountability test in the spring of 2016, we felt it was morally and ethically the right thing to do to allow everybody — our children, our parents, and our staff — to interact with it, without the accountability measures and without the same stress level,” he said.

In the first year, the state randomly administered the exams to schools and grades. For example, in spring 2014, Oak Bluffs fourth graders were given the English Language Arts (ELA) test in paper and pencil format. Other schools and grades were given the ELA and math exams in paper and pencil or a computer-based format. Pearson, the organization behind the test, used that data to make changes in the second year of the trial.

Now that the pilot program is complete, and a decision from the BESE is imminent, the PARCC/MCAS debate is in full throttle at the state level. A third option, a blend of the best PARCC and MCAS elements, is also on the table.

Technology-based testing

The key difference between the two assessments is that PARCC is aligned with federal Common Core measurements in math and English, which set clear standards for what students should be able to do in the two subjects by each grade level. The MCAS is aligned with student performance according to state education standards for all subjects.

The MCAS is a paper-and-pencil exam. If implemented statewide, PARCC tests would be administered on tablets or computers. MCAS are administered once in March for ELA and in May for math and science subjects. PARCC tests are administered twice a year. ELA and math are evaluated as a set in March and in May.

Some of those changes required adjustments by Island schools, Mr. Smith said. “We had to get all our schools up and running technologically so we could be able to have children complete these tests electronically,” he said. “Looking at something that’s paper and pencil, and being able to go back and forth, you have all the information in front of you, whereas taking an online test is like reading a novel online, versus reading it actually in hard copy.”

The strong emphasis on writing to demonstrate understanding was notable, he said.

“While that’s part of the paper-and-pencil test of MCAS, there is a very strong emphasis on PARCC,” he said. “It’s no doubt been called a more rigorous test, and from what we saw last year, it was a very rigorous test.”

On Oct. 20, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released the statewide PARCC results. According to a press release, students who took the PARCC were less likely to score in the “meeting expectations” category than on the MCAS.

For example, in eighth grade, 80 percent of students statewide scored proficient or higher in ELA on the MCAS, and 60 percent in math. 64 percent of students statewide met expectations in ELA on the PARCC exams, and 53 percent in math. That’s a 16 and 7 percent difference between tests.

The exception was the fourth grade, which showed the same level of proficiency in math on both tests, and a higher level of proficiency in ELA on the PARCC.

Mr. Smith said there are a number of variables in administering a new test that could contribute to lower test scores.

“The expectation whenever you take on a different assessment is there is much less of a comfort level in taking the test,” he said. “When you’re looking at a different format and going in and not really knowing what the different format is going to look like, you’re going to have a pretty high learning curve.”

He said limiting student anxiety is a major priority.

“It’s hard not to see the anxiety that these types of tests produce, so that’s always concerning, and the anxiety is most notably around the children, and how that impacts the entire community — parents and staff members as well,” Mr. Smith said.

He said regardless of what accountability measure is implemented by the state, administrators and teachers will focus on making it unique to the Island, and paying attention to student’s responses to the exams.

School district PARCC scores are set to be released publicly the second week of November.

Island MCAS results drop

There is no science PARCC exam. As a result, all districts will continue to administer MCAS science and technology/engineering tests in grades five, eight, and high school.

On the Island, students from third through eighth grade took the PARCC exam for ELA and math, and science MCAS in grade five and eight. Tenth graders took the MCAS in ELA, math, and science, which is a graduation requirement through the class of 2019.

School district MCAS results were released Sept. 24. With the exception of the Tisbury School, Island school science scores were generally down from 2014.

In Tisbury, 79 percent of fifth graders scored proficient or higher, a 13 percent increase over the previous year’s 66 percent. At the eighth grade level, 60 percent of students were proficient or higher, up 8 percent.

Oak Bluffs scores declined dramatically. Fifth grade scores decreased from 66 to 20 percent for proficient or higher, and eighth graders from 77 to 55 percent.

Edgartown scores also decreased, from 67 to 39 percent for proficient or higher in fifth grade and from 73 to 59 percent in eighth grade.

Charter School scores decreased from 75 to 58 percent of fifth graders proficient or higher, and increased from 61 to 73 percent for eighth graders. West Tisbury School scores increased from 46 to 68 percent in the proficient or higher category, and decreased from 78 to 46 percent in eighth grade.

The Chilmark School was not evaluated in the 2013-14 school year because the fifth grade sample size was too small, but 80 percent scored proficient or higher this year.

At the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, tenth grade test scores were comparable to 2013–14. In 2014–15, 96 percent achieved proficient or higher in ELA, 87 percent in math, and 85 percent in science, compared with 96, 86, and 84 percent respectively in 2013–14.

Charter MCAS scores were also comparable, with 94 percent of students proficient or higher in ELA, 94 in math, and 92 in science.

Both Charter and MVRHS scored higher than the state average among proficient-or-higher in all three categories. State scores were 90 percent in ELA, 79 in math, and 71 in science.

“We’re in this kind of nebulous, gray area with our accountability,” Mr. Smith said. He said that in looking at scoring percentages within the proficient or higher category, it’s generally lower for 2014–15. But the composition performance index (CPI) scores, the average score per grade level, is strong across the board, he said.

Regardless, he said, administrators and teachers take the scores very personally and seriously, and are always looking at ways to adjust their instruction based on the information they’re provided throughout the year. But, he said, there’s always room for improvement.

“Whether our scores improve in one year or decline in one year, we interact and use them in the same manner,” he said. “And that is to say, What variables can we control? What are we doing well and what are we not doing well? We’re always seeking to improve, whether our scores show that we’ve improved markedly or we’ve declined.”