Testing the tests

MCAS comes up short as measure of college- and career-readiness

FOR NEARLY TWO decades, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) has served as a measure of minimum proficiency for high school graduation with a design that reflects what was state-of-the-art thinking in the 1990s.  It was never intended to be a measure of college and career readiness, and new evidence confirms that it is not.

The distinction between “proficiency” and “college- and career-ready” matters if we want to give educators, families, and citizens an honest indication of whether their students are on track to meet postsecondary demands.  As the Commonwealth chooses a new assessment to accompany learning standards which place a higher priority on competencies for post-high school success, a key question is how the tests under consideration compare in measuring these abilities.  To inform this decision and the public conversation, the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE) commissioned an analysis of MCAS and PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) in this regard.

This analysis, “Educating Students for Success: A Comparison of the MCAS and PARCC Assessments as indicators of College and Career Readiness,” found that MCAS does not tell us whether a student is ready for college and career, primarily because its proficiency bar is too low and the content of the 10th grade “graduation” test is largely based on middle school material.  Not only does the MCAS “proficiency” bar not indicate readiness, the MCAS test system is not a system at all, as there is no correlation between tests from one year to the next.  If there were, students, parents, and teachers would have a trajectory of progress on which to make decisions that would better meet students’ needs.

The study’s findings reinforced our concern that the lack of accurate information regarding post-high school readiness presents a disturbing case of lost opportunity. What this means for too many Massachusetts students is that a high school diploma gives a false perception of academic readiness for college. When 36 percent of Massachusetts high school graduates cannot place into credit-bearing courses at public colleges and universities, they face costly remedial classes that keep them much farther from completing a college degree. With 72 percent of Massachusetts jobs projected to require a postsecondary credential in the next five years, we cannot afford to lose this talent.

The economic case is similarly compelling. Massachusetts has the most knowledge-dependent economy in the country.  Yet, the business community contends with a lack of qualified, home-grown candidates to fill job vacancies.  In a recent survey conducted for MBAE, 69 percent of employers report having difficulty hiring people with the right competencies to fill open positions.  The potential for assessments to help address this disconnect ought to be viewed as an opportunity to bring all of our students up to college and career readiness standards, widening the paths to success for them as individuals and filling our skilled worker pipeline.

Although there are still questions to be answered about PARCC, the study concluded that the PARCC design and plans make it likely to better indicate college- and career-readiness.  PARCC, which is administered online, establishes a “college and career readiness bar” that is considered high enough to allow students to bypass public college entrance exams.  Its content is considered to require higher order thinking and includes an 11th grade test that gives students, colleges, and universities a more realistic signal of entry level performance.

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We’ll have far more information on PARCC this spring when nearly half of Massachusetts students take the test for the first time.  Meanwhile, as a business organization committed to an education system that prepares all students to be productive citizens in a global society and economy, we are convinced it is time to move beyond MCAS to a modern testing system that not only measures readiness but actually enables it.  What Massachusetts chooses to assess inevitably influences what is taught in our schools, which makes “testing the tests” such a critical exercise.

Linda Noonan is executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.