Most Boston public schools would drop the MCAS next spring in favor of a new online testing system the state is trying out, joining a growing number of districts deciding to change the way school performance is judged.
The recommendation, being presented to the School Committee Wednesday night, would affect more than 22,000 Boston students in grades 3-8 who must take state standardized tests every spring. Tenth-graders would continue to take the MCAS, which remains a state graduation requirement.
If the School Committee approves the proposal, the city would become the largest district in the state to exclusively administer the new online tests in grades 3-8.
So far, 180 Massachusetts districts — including Andover, Milton, and Sudbury — plan to try out the new exams next spring, while 123 others, such as Peabody, Quincy, and Waltham, will stick with MCAS.
Embracing the test represents a major shift for Massachusetts, which has long taken pride in its home-grown academic standards and testing system. The new test, being developed by a consortium of states led by Massachusetts, is based on a national set of academic standards that Massachusetts adopted a few years ago and that school districts are currently rolling out.
Questions on the new test, called Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, delve into how students arrived at their answers and require more critical thinking skills, according to state officials. That, in turn, is causing schools to focus more on teaching those skills.
In a notice the Boston School Department posted on its website, officials said they believe PARCC is a “better tool” than the MCAS in measuring academic performance “in ways that are connected to what our students are actually learning.”
Boston’s approach would apply only to the tests administered next spring, the final leg of a two-year statewide tryout of the new PARCC exams. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education gave districts the option of taking the MCAS or the new test after conducting a trial run in a small fraction of schools statewide last spring.
This is the first time Boston is weighing in. That interim Superintendent John McDonough, who crafted the recommendation, is moving to embrace PARCC is widely perceived among educators as a strong vote of confidence in the new testing system and follows emotional debates that roiled other school districts as they considered what test to use.
“The question for us is really not so much about whether we move forward, but how well we move forward,” McDonough said.
Going with PARCC carries risks for a district like Boston, where dozens of schools require intervention. Because PARCC results will not count next spring, some education advocates worry that these struggling schools might lose momentum in their overhaul efforts.
By contrast, the performance of school districts that opt for the MCAS next spring would continue to be judged by the state based on those scores.
Jim Stergios — executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a Boston think tank that has been critical of PARCC — said he thinks it is a bad idea for Boston to use the new test across the board.
“There is rightfully a lot of pressure from parents to keep accountability pressure on the schools, and implementing PARCC without any accountability function would in essence lessen if not remove the pressure to improve,” said Stergios. “That’s like giving troubled schools a pass for a year.”
Boston considered dividing up its schools between the two tests, as Springfield and Worcester are doing. But in the end, McDonough said, he felt schools that took the MCAS would be at a disadvantage if the state decides to adopt PARCC.
Over the next few months, the School Department will determine which schools have enough broadband and computers to administer the PARCC online and which ones will have to settle for a paper version.
Critics of standardized testing have seized on the moment to push for an end to such testing, while some education advocates say the new system will be inferior to the MCAS.
But other educators and advocates say a change in testing systems offers unique opportunities for Massachusetts to lead other states to higher academic performance and to shift testing from paper into cyberspace.
In Boston, the teachers union, a longtime critic of standardized testing. is raising objections to PARCC.
“I think we are faced with a pick-your-poison dilemma, which means we have no choice at all,” said Richard Stutman, the union’s president. “It’s not appropriate to use either test for a measure to keep open or close a school. We need to talk about equalizing resources before using a one-size-fits-all test.’’
Lisa Guisbond — executive director of Citizens for Public Schools, an education nonprofit that has called for a moratorium on all high-stakes testing — echoed that concern.
“With PARCC versus MCAS, districts have been given a false choice,” she said. “They have to pick which of two flawed punitive systems will do the least harm to their efforts to engage and educate their students.”
Jeff Wulfson, a state deputy education commissioner, said districts are making a good choice by trying PARCC.
“The old MCAS won’t be the assessment in the long run,” said Wulfson, adding that PARCC or something like it could replace it. “The sooner you get teachers to see the new test and students to practice on it, the better off districts will be.”