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Education chief suggests a blend of assessment tests

MALDEN — A top education official, adding a new twist to the debate over whether the state should dump the MCAS in favor of new test, suggested Tuesday a “door number three” — a blend of both assessments that would raise standards and keep them under state control.

With a vote set for next month, Mitchell D. Chester, the commissioner of elementary and secondary education, told the education department’s board that rather than retaining the old test or replacing it with the controversial PARCC exam, the Commonwealth might develop an MCAS 2.0.

“MCAS, in its current version, has run its course,” Chester said in a phone interview. “It’s time to upgrade to a next-generation MCAS.”

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For Chester, who heads the governing board developing PARCC, the move was a jarring shift.

But a hybrid test, he said, could include the best ideas from the PARCC test, described by supporters as a better measure of higher-order thinking than the MCAS. But it could also retain state control of standards, he said, rather than surrendering them to the consortium that developed PARCC — or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers exam.

Eleven states and the District of Columbia took the PARCC test this year, but some have subsequently opted out of the exam, while others plan to retain it but revise scoring standards, according to media reports.

Chester said that while MCAS, in use for 18 years, was a strong educational tool when it was developed, it has over time led to an increase of teaching to the test. He said PARCC is “a strong advancement over MCAS” in calling upon students to use critical thinking and apply knowledge.

Chester stressed that the state should capitalize on its leading role in developing PARCC. Through its involvement, he said, Massachusetts shares joint ownership of PARCC and would be able to use or adjust elements of that test as state officials see fit.

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He declined to speculate on how much of a potential MCAS 2.0 might be based on PARCC standards, or what test Massachusetts students might take while a new test is developed.

Some expressed surprise at Chester’s sudden pivot away from PARCC. Linda M. Noonan, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, which supports PARCC adoption, questioned the timing of Chester’s announcement, coming so close to the vote.

“It sounds like sort of a Band-Aid approach, and perhaps generated more from political motivation than from . . . an educational imperative,” she said. “It’s not like he said, ‘Well, we’ve discovered that PARCC has a flaw and we have to have MCAS 2.0 to address it.’ ”

Noonan said a potential hybrid of the two tests could add additional years of development time and millions more in taxpayer dollars.

Chester denied that politics played a role in his announcement.

“My goal from the start has been to build the highest-quality education system that we can in Massachusetts,” he told the Globe.

Just over half of the state’s school districts administered the PARCC exam this spring, in the second year of a two-year tryout.

The PARCC test is designed to be taken online but is also available as a paper test. Education officials released statewide results for the paper tests Tuesday, after releasing preliminary statewide data on computer-administered PARCC exams in September.

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Tuesday’s data were similar to those released earlier. Both showed that students who took the PARCC exam were less likely to achieve a score equivalent to a proficient ranking on the MCAS test. But fourth-grade math scores were equivalent, and fourth-graders were more likely to score in the proficient range for English, according to state officials.

Chester’s suggestion of a third option could be beneficial, but not if it relies too much on the PARCC approach, said Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, an independent think tank that opposes adoption of PARCC.

“If there is an MCAS 2.0, we want it to be an MCAS 2.0,” Stergios said. “Where there is something that is especially strong . . . in the PARCC test, we’d be really pleased to see that considered for inclusion in an MCAS 2.0. But it’s not a PARCC 2.0 with a Massachusetts flavor.”

Stergios pointed to a recent study commissioned by the state that concluded that PARCC, promoted as a more effective tool at measuring students’ college readiness, is no better at predicting performance than MCAS.

But in testimony before the education board testimony Tuesday, three urban superintendents, including Tommy Chang of Boston, called for adoption of the PARCC exam. Chang said the proposed assessment, aligned with the Common Core educational standards adopted by the state in 2011, offers a better path to boosting classroom performance.

“We need assessments that match the rigor required in the Common Core,” Chang said. “As someone recently told me, ‘Teaching to this type of test is just better teaching.’ ”

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New Bedford Superintendent Pia Durkin, who also testified, said that the fact that many schools lack sufficient technology to allow all students to take the PARCC test online should not delay its acceptance.

“The urgency is critical,” Durkin said. “We simply cannot wait for technology to catch up.”


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