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State education board approves transition from MCAS to PARCC

The possible end to the MCAS exam got a bit closer last week.

In a 6-3 vote, the state’s education board approved a two-year transition to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers tests — a series of exams designed by 19 states to measure the success of the new Common Core education standards.

The two-year plan will give the state enough time to see if the PARCC is a better test than the MCAS, the test that the state began using in 1998. The board will likely make a final decision in fall 2015 — and will also need to decide whether to change a high school graduation prerequisite that students pass their 10th-grade MCAS exams.

Schools throughout Franklin County will participate in a field study of the test this spring.

Although school leaders have the option to waive the MCAS requirement — so that students will not have to take both tests — so far only the Gill-Montague Regional School district has opted to do so.

Students in the Mohawk Trail Regional and Hawlemont Regional school districts will have to take both tests. Otherwise, teachers and administrators would be unable to assess student growth, said superintendent Michael Buoniconti.

“We can’t compare PARCC data to MCAS data,” he said. “I regret the duplicate testing and frankly wish (the state) would work more collaboratively with school districts. The situation is not fair to our students.”

Martha Barrett, superintendent of the Frontier Regional and Union 38 School Districts, said that she believes it will be doable to test some of her schools’ students twice. She said the state initially overestimated the time it will take to administer the PARCC test.

“I’m looking at this, I hope, as a one-year event,” she said.

Students in Orange elementary schools and the Ralph C. Mahar Regional School will have to take both tests.

The Pioneer Valley Regional school district is still weighing its options, said Superintendent Dayle Doiron. A decision is due by Dec. 6.

Just one test for Gill-Montague students

Gill-Montague Superintendent Michael Sullivan said he felt the dual testing would be unfair to students, and advised the School Committee to exempt students taking the PARCC test from taking MCAS tests in the corresponding subjects.

“It will be a loss of important data but I think it’s unfair to ask those guys to take that level of standardized testing,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan said the English assessment is estimated to total 9.5 hours over the course of five sessions, three in March and April and two in May and June and the math portion eight hours over four sessions, two sessions each in March-April and May-June.

If the classes taking the PARCC tests were to take the corresponding MCAS tests as well it would add approximately half this time again to their standardized testing load, he said.

“It seems like an extraordinary amount of time that these students would spend on standardized testing, so I would recommend we don’t do that,” Sullivan said.

The School Committee unanimously supported Sullivan’s proposal, following discussion of the impact on assessment. School committee members worried trimming an already small MCAS pool could leave a statistically insignificant test sample. The state uses MCAS data to evaluate districts, but Sullivan said the Department of Education is attempting to work out a way to avoid penalizing schools suffering any negative impact from the missed testing, but it is unclear what this will look like.

In-house, Gill-Montague employs two additional assessment systems to measure learning and tailor teaching, tests incorporated during the district’s recent, successful bid to leave behind the state’s “underperforming” designation.

Proposed transition would take two years

The PARCC, which will be administered online, will test students near the end of each school year to see if they are improving and on track for college and professional jobs. It also includes tests that measure students’ speaking and listening skills and other optional ones that would test students in the middle of each year.

Under the state’s transition plan, school districts would choose in spring 2015 whether to administer the MCAS or the PARCC. Franklin County superintendents said earlier this fall it was too early to tell if the PARCC test will be better than the MCAS.

Some schools will need new technology to implement the test online in the years to come. The state education department has said it is advocating for increased funding to ensure classrooms are properly equipped. Some schools may also need to beef up computer curriculums in the early grades, with students asked to type and otherwise interact with computers for the online tests as early as the third grade.

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