Chester recommends “MCAS 2.0”

State ed chief says “next generation” assessment should draw from PARCC and MCAS

STATE EDUCATION COMMISSIONER Mitchell Chester proposed that the state develop a “next generation” testing system that combines elements of the Common Core-aligned PARCC test and the MCAS exam that Massachusetts has been using for nearly two decades.

In making his official recommendation today, Chester detailed a proposal he first sketched out last month, when he took the education field by surprise with his idea of a hybrid test rather than adopting outright the PARCC test developed by a multistate consortium or sticking with MCAS.

“This new test will build on the best elements of both PARCC and MCAS and will allow us to retain final control over our test content, testing policies, and test administration procedures,” Chester wrote in a memo today to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. The board is scheduled to vote on Chester’s proposal next Tuesday.

State education commissioner Mitchell Chester, left, and Education Secretary Jim Peyser speak with reporters following the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting on Tuesday.

State education commissioner Mitchell Chester, left, and Education Secretary Jim Peyser speak with reporters following the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting in October where Chester first outlined his idea of a hybrid test combining PARCC and MCAS.

In his memo, Chester calls PARCC a “substantial advancement” over MCAS, but says the state needs to maintain full control over all aspects of its assessment. His proposal recommends that state educators begin work on a new test, to be used in all districts in the spring of 2017, that incorporates elements of both MCAS and PARCC, which stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

Chester suggested last month that a new state test should draw heavily from PARCC, and he again seemed to be pushing in that direction today. Asked in a conference call with reporters how much he expected a new assessment to make use of PARCC test items, Chester said, “It’s hard for me to predict.” But it’s likely to be a “high proportion,” he said. “For all I know, it could be 95 percent PARCC, it could be 80 percent PARCC, maybe 75 percent.”

The state conducted a two-year tryout of PARCC, with about half of all districts last spring giving the new test, which was developed to be aligned with the Common Core curriculum standards that Massachusetts and more than 40 other states have adopted. About half of the state’s districts continued to use MCAS.

For the upcoming testing cycle, in the spring of 2016, Chester is recommending that districts that gave PARCC last spring continue to do so, while those that gave MCAS are given the option of using it or switching to PARCC.

PARCC was designed to be given online, though a paper version is also available. Chester is recommending that the state commit to giving the new hybrid assessment online to all students statewide by 2019.

Massachusetts education officials have been key members of the PARCC consortium of states that have collaborated in developing the assessment. Despite his recommendation to pull back from full adoption of the test, Chester wrote in his memo to the state board, “We expect to remain an active member of the PARCC consortium.”

Chester has served as chairman of the PARCC governing board, which is made up of chief education officials from states in the consortium. Chester said he does not know whether he will retain that role, which he said is decided on by the governing board on an annual basis.

Chester’s recommendation came on the same day that the nonprofit organization overseeing PARCC announced a restructuring to allow states to use the full test, or to pick and choose pieces of the test or even individual test items. The new a la carte option aligns with the approach Chester is recommending for Massachusetts.

The PARCC consortium was “very aware this was the direction I was heading in with my board,” Chester said, “and wanted to get this announcement out at the same time.”

PARCC at one point had 26 states signed on to use the assessment, but that number has dwindled to just seven states and the District of Columbia. States have abandoned the test for a variety of reasons, including political opposition to the Common Core standards it is based on, technical problems with online administration of the exam, and cost concerns.

Chester said he could not offer an estimate of what a new hybrid assessment would cost, but said it would clearly require “an increment in our assessments budget.”

State education officials say PARCC is a better assessment than MCAS of critical thinking and higher-order reasoning skills.

During the run-up to what was expected to be a decision between PARCC and MCAS, organizations weighed in strongly on both sides. Several education groups, including the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, Stand for Children, and Teach Plus, backed adoption of PARCC. Meanwhile, the Pioneer Institute argued for maintaining a state-based assessment, and called PARCC a flawed test that does not, in fact, raise the bar for student thinking and reasoning.

Both sides found things to applaud – and criticize – in Chester’s announcement.

The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education said it was encouraged that Chester “recognizes it’s time to replace the current MCAS” and it voiced support for the idea of remaining part of the PARCC consortium. But the group urged the state education board next week to revise Chester’s recommendation to state explicitly that a new MCAS exam “will be built on PARCC.”

Lindsay Sobel, executive director Teach Plus, an organization that involves teachers in policy development, said the board should make clear whether the new test will largely be based on PARCC because this will affect classroom practices of teachers.

“The more ambiguous the board leaves things the more educators are left in limbo,” she said.

Linda Noonan, executive director of the Mass. Business Alliance for Education, said Chester’s reluctance to recommend full adoption of PARCC appeared to be more of a political consideration than one grounded in policy concerns. “I think if it was not for the political pressures that are on the commissioner, we would not be debating an education policy issue as if it were a political issue,” she said.

Gov. Charlie Baker has made it clear that he thinks it’s important for the state to maintain control over its testing system. His education secretary, Jim Peyser, has voiced support for a hybrid plan that draws from PARCC, but keeps full control of the test at the state level.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

In a statement, Pioneer Institute said, “We applaud the Baker administration for proposing that Massachusetts retain its academic independence and testing autonomy.” But the group called for the state to pull out of the PARCC consortium and use the pre-2011 MCAS, which was in place prior to the adoption of Common Core standards, as the basis for developing a new test. That test should, “where appropriate, include questions and modes from other models such as PARCC,” said the statement.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association, which has taken a stand against any high-stakes testing, found little to cheer in today’s announcement.  Chester’s “proposed PARCC-infused ‘MCAS 2.0’ is wrong for students, wrong for educators, and wrong for Massachusetts,” the union’s president, Barbara Madeloni, said in a statement. The MTA has called for a moratorium on all high-stakes testing in the state.