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State OK’s trial of new education tests

Could take place of MCAS exams

MALDEN — Thousands of Massachusetts students next spring will try out a new state standardized testing system — many of them answering questions online — under a plan approved by state leaders Tuesday that pushes most MCAS exams closer to extinction.

The measure, approved by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education 6 to 3, calls for a two-year trial run of the system, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. Tests will be given in English and math only; there are no plans to replace the MCAS science exams.

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A key goal of the new system is to better gauge whether students are on track for success at the next grade level, and ultimately in college or on a job, by asking questions that require them to apply what they know instead of simply reciting answers, state leaders said.

“This is a step in pushing standards higher and pushing kids to think harder, to be better, and to be able to persist and achieve in college,” Karen Daniels, a board member from Milton who is an educational consultant and former school administrator, said before voting in favor.

But the three dissenting members raised concerns, in particular about a digital divide among schools statewide: Some have enough computers and broadband width to test dozens of students simultaneously, while others do not.

Harneen Chernow, the board’s labor representative, pointed out that students taking tests online will see captivating three-dimensional images on math questions, while other students would be stuck with paper booklets and pencils. “I’m just not comfortable where it’s going,” Chernow, whose children attend Boston public schools, said before voting against the measure.

She was joined by Daniel Brogan, the student representative from Dennis, and Ruth Kaplan, the parent representative from Brookline.

The new testing system, developed by a consortium of more than a dozen states, represents a dramatic departure for Massachusetts, which has long been proud that its homegrown MCAS program is considered to be one of the most rigorous in the nation.

Massachusetts education leaders said they are working to ensure the new system will be better. The state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, Mitchell Chester, is overseeing the consortium developing the tests, which are based on national academic standards that Massachusetts adopted a few years ago.

Chester said he was pleased the board approved his recommendation on the trial run.

The tryouts will occur on a small scale next spring. Nearly 100,000 students in grades 3-8, representing about 15 percent of those statewide, will take the exams in 1,250 schools from Boston to the Berkshires.

The following spring, the field testing will expand. About half of the state’s schools will take the new exam, while the other half will use the MCAS. State officials hope by dividing the schools up they can compare results to determine differences in rigor and student performance on the two exams.

Should the new test prove to be superior, the board would then vote in fall 2015 on whether to adopt the new system.

But a few board members expressed skepticism that the state would abandon the new exams after two years of trying them out, and considered Tuesday’s vote essentially a move to scrap the MCAS.

During public comments, Tracy O’Connell Novick, a Worcester School Committee member, urged the board to give districts more time to prepare for the new tests, noting that many schools will have to find money to buy more computers and broadband.

“That money will, again, come from our budgets,” O’Connell Novick testified. “We will take money from teachers, from school repairs, and from student supplies to provide for this testing. This is not right.”

Superintendents, in telephone interviews after the vote, also dwelled on technology.

Paul Dakin, head of Revere schools, said the digital divide could exacerbate gaps in achievement between students from low-income families and more prosperous ones. He also noted that students who use laptops or tablets in classes every day could have an edge over students who go to computer labs once a week.

Kamal Chavda, Boston’s assistant superintendent for data and accountability, said technological disparities exist among the schools and officials are still determining how many more computers and broadband connections will be needed. He said about 5,000 students in 80 Boston schools will try out the new tests next spring. “We look forward to a better stronger assessment,” Chavda said.

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