Mass. Board of Education weighs test prep emphasis

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MALDEN, MASS., SEPT. 23, 2014….The new chair of the state Board of Education raised concerns about the focus on standardized test preparation in Massachusetts schools, as board members on Tuesday discussed whether some districts give too many practice tests to prepare students for the MCAS.

Board chairwoman Margaret McKenna said some schools test students 20 to 25 days per school year, including practice and pre-tests. Board members said some school officials are blaming the state for the test prep 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 Gov. Deval Patrick in August.

McKenna said the intention of the test seems to have gotten lost.

“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 U.S. 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 test-like questions, while others do not focus on test preparation.

“No question 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 disadvantages students on the test. “The answer is absolutely not. Those kids are excelling,” he said.

State education officials are gearing up to possibly sunset the MCAS test and replace it with the federally-developed Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test, known as PARCC, which is based on national Common Core curriculum standards. Common Core has unleashed a torrent of criticism, 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 teaching to the test problem because it is “much more about thinking, reasoning . . . applying mathematics to the real world.”

He added, “The very narrow kind of instruction is not going to do you justice in that regard.”

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, according to state education officials. This past spring, 80,000 students across the state took the PARCC test.

School districts taking PARCC have until October 1 to decide whether to take the test online or opt for the paper and pencil version. Local school officials can change their minds up to October 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, students in more affluent communities had an advantage in the test because they tend to be more fluent with technology.

Board member Harneen Chernow asked for information about how the test is playing out in districts where there is a high poverty level compared to wealthier districts.

“When you’ve looked at the readiness of districts, how that readiness aligns with the socio-economic status of districts, I think that would be helpful for us to see,” she said.

Chester said he watched kids from both low-income and higher income families take the test last spring, with both groups appearing “engaged” with the online test. He talked to them about their comfort level with the online test.

“The worries of adults about whether kids have sufficient familiarity are not shared by kids,” Chester said.

The real issue around the “technological divide” is about instruction, said Jeff Wulfson, deputy commissioner of DESE. Students who lack technology in the classroom are at a disadvantage because they are not being prepared for the workplace, he said.

Secretary of Education Matt Malone said the IT bond bill passed by the Legislature this summer will address some of the disparities. Lawmakers earmarked $38 million for school technology upgrades.

Robert Bickerton, a consultant for DESE, said students who took the PARCC test in the spring said they preferred taking the test online, and most who took the test felt they had been taught the material in class. Less than one-third said the English Language Arts test was more difficult than their school work, while approximately 60 percent reported the math test was more difficult. The math portion digs deeper into some concepts and includes new online tools such as a calculator and equation editor, according to Bickerton.

“That contributed some of the challenges they encountered in math,” he said.

Chester said he was surprised to hear students say they liked the fact the online test is timed. In many schools, when the MCAS is given the entire day is devoted to the test. Students liked that they took the PARCC test and then moved on with their day, he said.

“I hadn’t suspected that feedback. That was surprising,” Chester said.

Chester predicted that as the state continues down the path toward PARCC, some people will argue the test should not be timed.

Copyright 2014 State House News Service

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