Debate Continues in Massachusetts Over Test Prep, MCAS and PARCC

New chairwoman for the Massachusetts State Board of Education Margaret McKenna has voiced concerns over the focus on standardized test preparation in schools across the state.

According to McKenna, some schools within the state are testing students 20-25 days per year, when practice tests and pretests are taken into account.

“What I keep hearing is the districts keep saying it’s the state; the state keeps saying it’s the districts,” said McKenna, who was appointed to the board by Governor Deval Patrick in August.

McKenna said the focus has been shifted from what the tests are truly intended for.

“I think it’s time for the state to say, ‘Wait a minute here; that is not the intention.’ We’ve got to figure out a way to make sure people are not teaching to the test,” said McKenna, who spent 22 years as president of Lesley University in Cambridge.

McKenna would like board members to look at what tests are being given throughout the year and how many of them are practice exams.

Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said there is a split in teaching styles when it comes to the exams; while some schools teach to the test in a “drill and kill” approach, other schools do not focus at all on the exams.  According to Chester, these non-prepped students are not at a disadvantage, but are in fact excelling.

Currently, state education officials are considering replacing the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test with the federal Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test, PARCC, based on the national Common Core standards.

The test will be tried out in the state for two years, with a final vote in the fall of 2015 concerning whether PARCC will officially replace the MCAS.

PARCC tests are expected to eliminate the issue of teaching to the test, as the exams are “much more about thinking, reasoning, . . . applying mathematics to the real world,” said Chester.

Meanwhile, schools across the state are facing falling test scores, with six additional schools recently being added to the “underperforming” list.  John McDonough, Boston Public School’s interim superintendent was reportedly “not surprised” at the additions, as those schools serve mainly low-income families.

Districts will choose which test to administer this spring.  So far, 60% plan on using PARCC, while 40% are choosing to remain with the MCAS.  School officials hope the new test will offer a better view of each school’s academic standing.

Those districts using the PARCC exams have until October 1 to decide whether to take the tests online or with paper and pencil.  Local school officials have until October 31 to change that decision, as board members express concern over low-income students being at a disadvantage in using the technology.

The MCAS was administered in an effort to improve curriculum, evaluate students and schools, and determine a student’s graduation eligibility.