Metro

Boston superintendent wants less testing, broader assessments

An assessment system would capture a fuller view of critical thinking and performance, Boston schools superintendent Tommy Chang said.
Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/File 2015
An assessment system would capture a fuller view of critical thinking and performance, Boston schools superintendent Tommy Chang said.

Boston Public Schools students will spend less time this year taking standardized tests and could soon move toward an assessment system that captures a fuller view of critical thinking and performance, Superintendent Tommy Chang says.

“We’re cutting back on multiple-choice interim assessments — period,” Chang said Tuesday in a meeting with Globe editors and reporters.

District schools, Chang said, are curtailing the use of so-called predictive exams — those aimed at forecasting performance on year-end multiple-choice tests, such as the MCAS. Chang said such tests are not good measures of students’ reasoning ability.

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The move won measured praise from Lisa Guisbond, executive director of the advocacy group Citizens for Public Schools, which calls for a moratorium on using standardized tests as a graduation requirement and for teacher evaluation and school rankings.

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Guisbond said, however, that reducing predictive testing does not address what she sees as the root problem: Teachers and principals consider those tests necessary because of pressure for high scores on the MCAS or on its possible replacement, known as the PARCC.

“The state needs to have the moratorium on the high-stakes use of standardized testing,” she said, “to create the space to really seriously develop better ways of assessing students and measuring how our schools are doing.”

Chang said he, too, embraces a broader approach that would include students’ social and emotional development, as well as assessing performance on tasks.

“Multiple-choice is not a performance,” he said. “Writing an essay is a performance. Having a debate in class is a performance. Being able to read a piece of text and make an argument based on the text — that’s a performance.”

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Chang also praised the PARCC exam — the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers — which is aligned with controversial Common Core standards, national guidelines specifying English and math curriculums for each grade level.

Chang said PARCC, which the state is considering as a replacement for the MCAS, is “far more robust at assessing critical thinking for our kids.” Chang said he supports Common Core standards and hopes the debate around PARCC will not derail schools’ embrace of those standards.

Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a conservative think-tank, agreed that many schools spend too much time testing, and said it is up to local officials to determine how much testing is right for their students.

But he disagreed on Common Core standards, saying that they are lower than existing Massachusetts standards. He said that as teachers prepare students for PARCC, they will neglect more advanced work in the current curriculum.

“Superintendent Chang is wrongheaded in this and he is shortchanging kids by taking that approach,” Stergios said.

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Chang’s reconsideration of assessment methods could extend to reporting student achievement.

‘Multiple-choice is not a performance. Writing an essay is a performance. Having a debate in class is a performance. Being able to read a piece of text and make an argument based on the text — that’s a performance.’

Tommy Chang, Boston schools superintendent 

Rahn Dorsey, the city’s chief of education, said he and Chang have discussed the high school transcript of the future and how best to present meaningful information about student performance.

“I’ve had college admissions officers tell me, ‘We would stop looking at GPA and standardized test scores if there was actually more of a skills-based assessment,’ ” Dorsey said at the Globe meeting.

Chang said he envisions something like a LinkedIn page that would outline students’ coursework, extracurricular activities, languages spoken, and special skills.

“We all have LinkedIn pages — imagine that for a K-12 student, how powerful that would be,” Chang said. “At the end of graduation, they get that as, almost like, ‘This is my portfolio; this is my résumé.’ ”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.