Scores drop on new, more rigorous MCAS

State officials say results highlight need to raise expectations

SCORES ON THE state’s revamped MCAS test took a big dip, but state officials say that’s because the test got harder, not because student performance got worse.

About half of students statewide in 3rd through 8th grade were “meeting expectations” or “exceeding expectations,” the top two categories out of four used in the new English language arts and math tests given last spring. In contrast, in 2015, the last year for which statewide figures were released for the older MCAS exam, well over half of students scored proficient or advanced, the two top categories for that test, with proficiency rates reaching as high as 80 percent for some grades.

“The new test is meant to be a more rigorous assessment of more rigorous standards,” said Jeff Wulfson, the state’s acting education commissioner, in a conference call with reporters. State officials have been warning that scores on the “next generation MCAS,” as they have termed the new assessment, were likely to suggest a decline in student performance if compared directly with results from the “legacy MCAS” and they have cautioned against such interpretations.

“We know that parents will be concerned,” said Wulfson. He said that was particularly likely among those whose children tested as proficient on prior MCAS tests but only tested into the “partially meeting expectations” category on the new exam. He parents probably should not be worried if their child tested close to the “meeting expectations” cut point. But a parent whose child was not close to that designation should “have a conversation” with his or her teacher.

Families will receive individual student scores on October 24, Wulfson said.

Last spring was the first time all students in grades 3-8 were administered the new MCAS exam, which replaced the test Massachusetts students took for years. The new test was developed after two years of trial runs in Massachusetts schools with the PARCC test, an assessment developed in collaboration with a number of other states.

The PARCC test, which is aligned with a new set of curriculum benchmarks known as the Common Core State Standards, fell out of favor with many of the states that originally formed a consortium to use it. Gov. Charlie Baker expressed concern about ceding control of the state test to a multi-state consortium, and the state’s late education commissioner, Mitchell Chester, urged the state education board two years ago not to adopt the PARCC test, but to develop instead a new assessment that draws elements from PARCC and from the state MCAS test.

The new test is designed to be taken online, which most students did last spring. By 2019, state officials say, all students should be taking the exam online.

Some of the differences in scores on the old and new MCAS tests are striking  On the 3rd grade math test, for example, while 71 percent of students statewide scored proficient or higher on the 2015 MCAS test, only 49 percent scored as meeting or exceeding expectations on the new MCAS given last spring.

For 6th grade English language arts, the 2015 proficiency figure was 71 percent compared with 51 percent on the new test. For 8th grade English, 80 percent scored proficient or higher in 2015, while just 50 percent met or exceeded expectations on the new test last spring.

Education Secretary Jim Peyser said a more rigorous test is necessary if students are going to be prepared to leave high school ready to do college-level work. He pointed to the fact that one-third of Massachusetts high school graduates who go on to public higher education institutions in the state require remedial classes in math or English before they can take credit-bearing courses.

“We are clearly sending signals to students that they are ready for post-secondary education when, in fact, they are not,” said Peyser.

Massachusetts students must pass the 10th grade MCAS exam in math and English language arts to receive a high school diploma, but critics have long said the test is not an indicator of college readiness.

Raising the bar for the graduation requirement, however, seems like to be at least several years off.

Only 3rd through 8th graders took the revamped MCAS test last spring. Those in 10th grade continued to take the legacy test and will do so against this spring, Tenth graders will begin taking the new assessment in the spring of 2019. Wulfson said, however, that the department has recommended that the state education board approve a “two-year window” in which a passing score on the new 10th grade exam is set at an “equivalent level to what it would be if we were giving the legacy MCAS test.”

As to whether the minimum passing score will be set higher after that, Wulfson said, “that’s a decision that will only be made after considerable discussion on the board” and with various education stakeholders.

Peyser said the state’s education reform effort, begun with passage of the 1993 Education Reform Act, is “a tremendous success story,” pointing to the state’s top ranking among states on most achievement benchmarks.

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.

“At the same time,” said he said, “what we’re seeing is, we haven’t gone far enough.”