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Education official says schools too focused on test preparation

MALDEN — The new chairwoman of the state Board of Education raised concerns Tuesday about the focus on standardized test preparation in Massachusetts schools, as board members discussed whether some districts give too many practice tests to prepare students for the MCAS.

Margaret McKenna, the board’s chairwoman, said some schools test students 20 to 25 days per school year, including practice and pretests. Board members said some school officials are blaming the state for the test preparation focus.

“What I keep hearing is the districts keep saying it’s the state; the state keeps saying it’s the districts,” said McKenna, who was appointed to the board by Governor Deval Patrick in August.


McKenna said the intention of the test seems to have been forgotten.

“I think it’s time for the state to say, ‘Wait a minute here; that is not the intention.’ We’ve got to figure out a way to make sure people are not teaching to the test,” said McKenna, who spent 22 years as president of Lesley University in Cambridge.

McKenna, who began her career as a civil rights attorney for the US Department of Justice, said she would like the board to look at what tests are given at a typical district, and how many of those are practice tests.

Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said some school districts spend a lot of time teaching students testlike questions, while others do not focus on test preparation.

“There is a wide variety of ways schools approach this,” Chester said.

Chester said studies have looked at whether schools that shy away from a narrow “drill and kill” approach of test preparation put students at a disadvantage.

“The answer is absolutely not; those kids are excelling,” he said.

State education officials are gearing up to possibly replace the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test with the federally developed Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test, known as PARCC.


That test is based on national Common Core curriculum standards. Common Core has been widely criticized, with some states backing away from using the curriculum standards.

In Massachusetts, the test is undergoing a two-year tryout before the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education votes in the fall of 2015 on whether to implement PARCC statewide as the new assessment test.

Chester, who is chairman of the PARCC’s governing board, said the PARCC test will eliminate the problem of teaching to the test because it is “much more about thinking, reasoning, . . . applying mathematics to the real world.”

School systems can choose which test students will take next spring. So far, approximately 60 percent of districts have chosen PARCC, while 40 percent plan to remain with MCAS to test students in grades 3 through 8, say state education officials. This past spring, 80,000 students across the state took the PARCC test.

School districts taking PARCC have until Oct. 1 to decide whether to administer the test online or opt for the paper-and-pencil version. Local school officials can change their minds up to Oct. 31, if they feel their schools are not prepared to take the test online.

Board members expressed concern about disparities between low-income and more affluent students over exposure to technology.

One board member said it would be a cruel irony if in working to erase the achievement gap among low-income students, the state ensures that students in more affluent communities have an advantage in the test because they tend to be more fluent with technology.