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Evan Horowitz

With switch to PARCC from MCAS, benefits uncertain

The switch to PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) has been gathering momentum in recent months.
The switch to PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) has been gathering momentum in recent months.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File

This spring, about half of all Massachusetts school districts will drop the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, and switch to a new test called the PARCC exam. And come fall, the state is likely to move all districts to the new test, ending MCAS’s 20 year reign as the gold standard for assessing students in Massachusetts public school.

Although the switch to PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) has been gathering momentum in recent months — including support from school principals, 71 percent of whom think it’s a more demanding test — the benefits are still largely uncertain.

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A lot of it comes down to this: Once we have the results, and we can see exactly where kids are getting stuck and who’s falling behind, what do we do about it? The test is the first step, and it’s not yet clear what comes next.

Why do we need a new test?

PARCC is specifically designed for the Common Core curriculum being implemented in Massachusetts and around the country . Because the test itself is being used in about a dozen other states, we’ll be able to compare our performance with some of our peers.

Who will take PARCC?

This year, 54 percent of districts have decided to give the PARCC exam, rather than the MCAS. In those districts, students in grades 3 through 8 will take both the English and Math PARCC tests. And rather than fill in bubbles, they’ll be using computers, which is how the PARCC exams are administered.

High-school level PARCC exams are going to be phased in more gradually, so that the 10th grade MCAS can remain an official graduation requirement through the class of 2019.

Are education leaders excited about it?

Judging from a forum held at the Boston Foundation two weeks ago, the answer is yes.

Mitchell Chester, the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary education, said the PARCC exam would help the state reduce the stubborn achievement gaps between rich and poor, white and minority, by giving teachers better information about which kids need extra support.

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Richard Freeland, outgoing commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, spoke with equal urgency about ensuring that our high school graduates are ready for college, something he thinks the new tests will address.

There’s a good deal of support from principals, too, according to a recent poll by the MassINC polling group. About 71 percent of Massachusetts principals said they thought the PARCC exam would be more demanding than the MCAS, and a strong majority said it would do at least as well at assessing students’ ability to think critically and use real-world skills.

Is there any opposition?

Quite a bit, and for a host of different reasons.

Some stems from a broader resistance to the Common Core curriculum itself. The idea behind Common Core was to establish a set of rigorous national standards that states could use in order to ensure their students were getting the best 21st century education.

Opposition has grown as more states have moved to implement Common Core standards. Among other things, there’s skepticism about the incentives used to get states to embrace Common Core, dissatisfaction with the lack of literary texts in the curriculum, and frustration with the general emphasis on career-readiness over life-readiness.

On PARCC, there’s also a concern that it contributes to overtesting, and that while annual, high-stakes tests may provide useful data, they also limit teachers’ flexibility and create additional stress for kids.

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How transformative is this change, really?

It’s hard to imagine that simply switching from one annual test (MCAS) to another (PARCC) is going to transform our education system. Massachusetts already has world-class schools. On international tests, our students compare favorably to Canada, Finland, and Germany.

But more generally, these kinds of changes don’t really get to the root of our achievement gap, which is bound up with poverty and childhood experiences. By the time you see third-grade test scores, you’ve already missed out on some of the best opportunities to make a difference through childhood nutrition and high-quality early education.

Even if the test can help teachers identify which kids are really struggling, what happens next? What kinds of additional resources are going to be made available to help those students? It’s this other debate about how best to help struggling students that has the biggest stakes for the future of education in Massachusetts.


Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz