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Early data shows low scores on new MCAS tests

Next-generation MCAS aims to capture college readiness Critics say project-based assessment is more meaningful

Jule Pattison-Gordon | 10/5/2017, 6 a.m.

The next-generation MCAS debuted this past spring for students statewide in grades 3-8, and early score projections from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education show that students did not fare well.

According to DESE’s initial projections, half of test-takers failed to meet expectations in english language arts and in math, a score that indicates additional academic assistance is either required or to be considered.

This year’s scores on the new test will be used only to establish a baseline expectation for a typical number of right or wrong answers. Otherwise, the low scores could have had severe repercussions, as a student must pass the MCAS in grade 10 in order to graduate, and the state ranks schools in part based on their MCAS results. Schools with poor enough rankings go into a turnaround process or risk state takeover.

Some education advocates, however, say the conversation around updating the standardized test is misguided, and that education improvement comes not from a new test, but rather from a different, more engaged model of learning.

“We’ve doubled down on the status-quo — an accountability system based on one high stakes standardized test,” said Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teacher’s Union. “There’s so much more to student learning, quality, than one test…. This was a missed opportunity for the state to have a much more meaningful accountability system.”

New MCAS, new results

DESE said the low scores on the new MCAS do not indicate that student learning declined, but rather that the new test captures different things. The next-generation MCAS puts more focus on critical thinking, applied knowledge and connecting reading and writing than the previous “legacy” MCAS did, so as to better predict college success, DESE states.

BTU president Tang agrees that it is common for scores to drop on any new tests, as students are not used to the format and manner of asking questions yet.

Is it better?

DESE notes that with the legacy MCAS, even high scores were a poor predictor of students’ success in college: One-third of students who enrolled in public higher education after passing the MCAS and graduating high school were assigned to remedial courses in college.

The next-generation MCAS is intended to be an improved indicator of a student’s college readiness and a school’s quality.

But Monty Neill of The National Center for Fair and Open Testing says the next-generation MCAS is not a step forward, as it blends elements of the original MCAS with the PARCC test, an exam that is not much more predictive of college success.

Neill points to a 2015 Mathematica Policy Research report commissioned by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Education that found that PARCC scores were only slightly more predictive than MCAS scores of a student’s ability to attain a B or need remedial courses in first-year college math, and was no better at predicting these for english language arts. High scores on both MCAS and PARCC tests were only a minor indicator of college success, explaining only 5 to 18 percent in the variation of first-year college grades, the report stated.