Online exam that could replace MCAS gets trial run
Schools test out proposed successor of long-used system
REVERE — Not a single groan. Just silence.
The 33 seventh-graders at the Susan B. Anthony Middle School were embarking on a grand experiment — taking a new state math assessment being conducted for the first time online. Then the dreaded “error message” swept across nearly all their computer screens.
“We’ll get it fixed,” their teacher Joe Amico assured them Thursday morning. “It’s just a glitch.”
Minutes later, the students logged in again and were ready to go.
Such minor hitches are to be expected for such a huge undertaking. After 16 years of the MCAS, state education leaders are exploring the once unthinkable: a new standardized testing system, this time done almost entirely online.
The potential switch is so dramatic — rife with debate about whether a technological divide among schools could influence performance — that the state is spending the next two years trying out the new exams before deciding whether to ditch the MCAS.
More than 1,000 schools across the state have been participating in a trial run for the past two weeks, typically testing a couple of classrooms of students. Because of concerns about whether all schools have enough computers or broadband capacity, some are trying out a paper-and-pencil version of the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.
The schools join thousands of others in more than a dozen states looking to adopt the same online testing system, part of a push by the Obama administration for national standards in teaching math and English.
So far, aside from a few glitches, the tryouts have been going smoothly, said Mitchell Chester, commissioner of elementary and secondary education in Massachusetts, who also is the national chairman of the PARCC governing board. More than 250,000 tests had been completed in the participating states by the end of last week.
“Most of the glitches are local,” Chester said. “But there have been some glitches with the test itself.”
In Revere, which like Burlington is assessing how mass testing could affect a single school, most of the students interviewed said they liked the PARCC more than the MCAS because it was done on computers.
“If you make a mistake, you can go back and delete it. You don’t have to erase,” said Nadia Desimone, 13. “I feel like I can concentrate more.”
That didn’t surprise Amico, the teacher. “They are the tech generation,” Amico said. “This is second nature to them.”
A key part of the first field tests is to gauge the introduction of technology into the high-stakes world of standardized testing. In Massachusetts, students must pass state standardized tests to graduate from high school, and education officials use the data to determine which schools require overhauls and possible state takeovers.
Researchers will examine whether students who take the exams online have an edge over those flipping through booklets, and whether students who use computers routinely in school and at home perform better than other online test-takers who rarely use the devices.
The National Center for Fair & Opening Testing, an organization critical of standardized testing based in Jamaica Plain, has called for an indefinite moratorium on the new exams because of questions over using technology as well as other issues.
“There is still the issue of a limited snapshot of information being used to make major judgments about students, teachers, and schools,” said spokesman Robert Schaeffer.
Other groups have raised concerns about cheating. To guard against that, schools use secure browsers to prevent students from surfing the Web and ban cellphones and other personal electronic devices from testing rooms.
Many school leaders in Massachusetts and in other states are closely watching Revere and Burlington, which is working with the Rennie Center, a research institute in Cambridge, on a study about mass online testing. Burlington is doing schoolwide testing in all six of its schools, and Revere in three schools.
Burlington is using a variety of devices: PCs, Chromebooks, and IPads, which require external keyboards and mouse controllers.
“The first couple of days were the most hectic — having devices freeze up or being slow,” said Patrick Larkin, Burlington’s assistant superintendent. “But by the end of the week, the problems pretty much disappeared.”
In Revere, where the Susan B. Anthony Middle School tested seventh-graders Thursday morning, students had 75 minutes to complete 15 questions in the first two sections of the exam.
Principal Joanne Willett monitored the exam’s progress on her laptop, enabling her to see which questions each student answered and which ones they were stuck on.
As the clock in one computer lab struck 10 a.m., teacher Ben Adelman announced the time was up — a big switch from the MCAS, which is untimed. Ten of the 33 students didn’t finish.
Jaylee Griffin had four questions left. That was enough for her to declare, “I like MCAS better.”
“You have more time to do it and the questions are easier,” Jaylee said.
Other classmates said they also found the PARCC math questions more difficult than those on the MCAS, although they said the PARCC English exam, which they took a week earlier, was easier.
Samantha Lawrence, 13, said she liked that the PARCC had time restrictions.
“When you take MCAS, it’s all day long, and when you do PARCC it’s only two hours,” Samantha said.
Revere officials said they are optimistic about the PARCC, which they say emphasizes more critical thinking and synthesizing multiple pieces of information.
But they wonder how they will administer the exams when all schools are taking it. In order for the Susan B. Anthony to test a single grade level at one time, it had to borrow two computer labs from an elementary school it shares a building with — an option that won’t be available when the elementary school does its own testing.
That has the school system thinking about purchasing more portable devices, but money is tight.
“Do we ramp up technology for the test or hire another math teacher?” said Dianne Kelly, an assistant superintendent. “These are the questions we are weighing. It’s a balancing act.”