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School systems decide on test programs

Many school districts in Massachusetts are moving away from the MCAS test for grades 3 to 8 next year and will instead administer a new exam more closely aligned with the Common Core state standards.

As of June 30, 176 districts have chosen to administer the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers or PARCC, in the spring of 2015, and 121 districts have chosen to stay with the MCAS test. So far, 297 out of the state’s 403 districts have filed their decisions with the state.

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Districts north of Boston that chose PARCC include Andover, Beverly, Burlington, Danvers, Malden, Marblehead, Melrose, Reading, Revere, and Topsfield.

Districts south of Boston that chose PARCC include Attleboro, Braintree, Hull, Milton, Pembroke, Plymouth, Scituate, and West Bridgewater.

Districts west of Boston that chose PARCC include Ashland, Bellingham, Bedford, Belmont, Concord, Groton-Dunstable, Natick, Newton, Sudbury, and Maynard.

PARCC supporters say the exam better tests the 21st century skills students should know, can be administrated online, and has a more flexible testing schedule.

“From our perspective as educators, our leadership team unanimously recommended PARCC,” said Scituate Superintendent John McCarthy. “It’s the next generation of assessment. It’s really assessing some of those critical, college readiness skills.”

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But officials in some districts say they do not want to move forward with a new test until state officials make a final decision on assessment next year. PARCC has been controversial in some communities, where parents and teachers have raised concerns about testing in general, PARCC’s alignment with Common Core, and the fact that the state may not even go with PARCC next year. Many school districts are also not equipped technologically to administer the PARCC online, however it can also be given in paper form.

Districts north of Boston that chose to stay with MCAS include Dracut, Hamilton-Wenham, Medford, Methuen, Saugus, Salem, Peabody, and Swampscott.

Districts south of Boston that chose to stay with MCAS include Canton, Duxbury, East Bridgewater, Easton, Hingham, Marshfield, and Quincy.

Districts west of Boston that chose to stay with MCAS include Acton-Boxborough, Harvard, Holliston, Hopkinton, Medfield, Southborough, Waltham, and Wellesley.

In Salem, school administrators recommended PARCC but the School Committees voted to stay with MCAS.

“The School Committee decided that there were too many unanswered questions concerning PARCC and the implementation, and whether it was going to be formally adopted by the state board,” said Salem Superintendent Stephen Russell, who recommended changing to PARCC.

In November 2013, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education endorsed a two-year test of PARCC. State education officials say PARCC has the potential to deliver clearer signals to schools, colleges, employers, and parents about students’ readiness for the next grade level and, in high school, readiness for college and careers.

This spring, more than 81,000 students in Massachusetts participated in a PARCC field test. For the spring of 2015, districts in Massachusetts will have the choice to administer either PARCC or MCAS, with the exception that all high school students through at least the class of 2019 must continue to pass the Grade 10 MCAS tests in English language arts, mathematics, and science and technology/engineering to satisfy the state graduation requirement.

Districts had until June 30 to decide between the two tests for the spring. Districts can decide later but will not be guaranteed their choice.

Based on the results of the two-year trial, Mitchell Chester, the commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, will make a recommendation to the department’s board in the fall of 2015 whether to stop giving the MCAS assessments for grades 3-8 and employ PARCC as the state testing program beginning in the 2015/2016 school year.

Chester said he was pleased with how the pilot tests went this spring and said changes are being made to address glitches.

“We were able to identify some bugs and we were able to fix some; some were technology, some were items that need to be revised,” Chester said. “That’s the purpose of the field test — to try it out and see what needs to be improved.”

Chester said he is hoping for a good mix of MCAS and PARCC for next year so they can compare the two.

“That will give us some in-depth feedback about how the two tests compare,” he said.

Newton was one of the districts that participated in the PARCC pilot this year and will be giving it to all students next year. Some of the students took it online, while others used paper and pencils.

In a letter to families, Superintendent David Fleishman said while the pilot presented technological challenges in the first year, most students were comfortable with the digital format.

Fleishman said based on the outcome of the pilot and the fact that he thinks PARCC better reflects curriculum changes that are taking place, he felt it was a good idea for students to take PARCC in the spring and get accustomed to the new test.

Malden Superintendent David DeRuosi said his district also participated in the pilot this year and thought it went well. He said the eighth-graders liked taking the test online and felt as though they had plenty of time to take it.

He said the decision to go with PARCC next year was a difficult one for the School Committee.

“There was a lot of discussion but it came down to the fact that we’d be doing a disservice to the students to not move forward and help them gain exposure to PARCC,” DeRuosi said. “We will have a new exam in two years no matter what so I think my School Committee made the decision that we didn’t want to set Malden students back and not put them behind the curve.”

Braintree also decided to go with PARCC. Superintendent Maureen Murray said she sees the test as the next generation of assessments.

But other districts are not as willing to try the test knowing that the state may not go with it next year.

Quincy Superintendent Richard DeCristofaro said he thinks a new format for the test is inevitable, but the district and parents are comfortable with MCAS so they decided to stick with it for another year and see how other districts fare.

“The consistency of MCAS for one more year is the best thing for our students, our teachers, and our families,” DeCristofaro said. “There is also an opportunity to learn as other cities and towns embark on it. We can be aware of any positives and issues that come up.”

Bedford Superintendent Jon Sills said his district is going with PARCC, but not without reservation. He said while the state has not decided on PARCC, he thinks the writing is on the wall. He also believes it aligns more closely with the critical thinking skills Bedford is teaching.

But he is concerned about longer tests and how that will affect teaching and learning.

“Testing is very disruptive to kids,” he said. “But when you weigh the pluses and minuses, we decided it was better to give the students an early look at the test. We feel like our kids would be at a disadvantage if they didn’t have a first look.”

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.
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