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Online exams may replace MCAS tests

State officials plan spring trial for new system

“I hope this will be a new generation of assessments that will do a better job of signaling to students whether they will have success ...” said state education official Mitchell Chester.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff /2012

“I hope this will be a new generation of assessments that will do a better job of signaling to students whether they will have success ...” said state education official Mitchell Chester.

The MCAS, the gold standard of measuring school success in Massachusetts, is moving closer to extinction as schools prepare to try out a new testing system this year.

Many schools across the state will begin a trial run of the new tests in the spring, a prospect that has left some superintendents and other school administrators feeling overwhelmed as they deal with many other state mandates. An outline of the proposed tryout schedule will be made public Tuesday.

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Momentum for the potential switch has been accelerating this month as more than 1,250 schools, about two-thirds of those statewide, learn that at least one of their classrooms will “field test” the new exams next spring in math or English.

If the tryouts prove to be successful, implementing the new system would represent a major shift in the way Massachusetts tests students. The new system aims to assess all students online instead of using paper booklets, and the questions will attempt to gauge students’ understanding of a topic by asking them to explain the rationale behind the answers.

“I hope this will be a new generation of assessments that will do a better job of signaling to students whether they will have success when they move to the next level and ultimately will they be ready for success in the real world,” said Mitchell Chester, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education. “The MCAS was never designed to be an indicator of college and career readiness.”

The switch could have far-reaching consequences for schools across the state. The exams could become the new benchmark for measuring school success, and scores under the new testing system could dip as schools adjust to different kinds of questions and the academic standards on which the tests are based.

And in a big departure, Massachusetts has joined a consortium of about 20 states to develop the tests — called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers — instead of designing its own system, as it did with the MCAS.

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With so much at stake, the potential demise of the 15-year-old Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams has stirred debate and a wide range of criticism.

The Pioneer Institute, a right-leaning research and policy organization in Boston, contends the new assessments — based on a common set of academic standards adopted by the participating states, including Massachusetts — are inferior to the MCAS and potentially less rigorous. The group predicts standards will slide.

“This is truly a step backward for us,” said Jim Stergios, Pioneer’s executive director.

Citizens for Public Schools, a left-leaning education advocacy organization in Boston, is also worried, but for a different reason:It worries the new test will cause more 10th-graders to flunk the exams, creating difficulties for them to get their diplomas, especially those with disabilities or those who lack fluency in English.

Under state law, students have to pass a 10th-grade state standardized test to graduate from high school. Citizens for Public Schools is pushing for a moratorium on that requirement.

“You can’t just get people to clear a high bar by yelling at them to jump higher and higher,” said Lisa Guisbond, the organization’s vice president.

Many superintendents, school administrators, and teachers feel overwhelmed at the prospect of a new exam, as they attempt to juggle other state-mandated initiatives, such as a new educator evaluation system and changes to teacher training. Some are also concerned whether schools will have enough computers and broadband capacity to do online testing.

“It’s not that we all don’t believe this is a good thing, but there is a concern about how much we are biting off right now,” said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

Chester is expected to lay out a two-year proposal for the tryout at a state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting on Tuesday. The proposal would require state board approval, with a vote likely in November.

Under the proposal, schools chosen to try out the new exams would have the option in most cases of not giving students the MCAS. The exception would be any 10th-graders at those schools, because passing the MCAS will remain, for now, a state graduation requirement.

About 15 percent of all students in grades 3 to 11 statewide, or nearly 100,000 of them, will be given the trial exams.

In the following school year, 2014-15, all school districts would choose between the MCAS or the new exams, known as PARCC, for that year only. The idea behind the choice is to determine if there is any gap in rigor between the two tests by comparing the results.

After the two-year tryout, the state would decide which test to use. If the new approach is adopted, that exam would become a graduation requirement, instead of the MCAS. Each change would require state board approval.

“We will not adopt PARCC if it sets a lower bar in terms of academic achievement,” Chester said.

But the expectation is that Chester will recommend adopting the new exams because he is chairman of the consortium developing them — providing him considerable sway on the final product. Many educators and advocates doubt Chester would allow the new exams to be inferior to MCAS.

As of now, Chester said he anticipates that PARCC and MCAS will be comparable in rigor in grades 3 to 8 and that the new test might be more difficult for grade 10.

Even if Massachusetts adopts the new exams, MCAS may not disappear. The state still intends to test students in science, an area not covered by the new exams and a subject 10th-graders must pass to graduate.

Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said teachers tend to like the idea that the new tests would require students to use more critical and creative thinking.

“There is hopefulness it will be an improved measure of assessment,” Toner said.

Boston officials said some schools will participate in the field tests, but they do not know which ones. Boston has been revamping math and English curriculums to reflect new national standards and has been monitoring the release of sample questions from PARCC to get a feel for the new tests.

But Boston and other districts won’t know for sure if they are ready until the field tests take place.

“We are all nervous about what this will look like,” said Linda Chen, chief of curriculum and instruction for the Boston schools. “It’s a new assessment environment.”

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.

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