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State assessments in CPS 

On Dec. 15, 2015, the Cambridge School Committee voted to approve my recommendation to pilot the PARCC assessment in Grades 3-8 this spring instead of continuing our past practice of administering the MCAS.  As assessment in general is a topic that generates strong feelings, not just in Cambridge but across the country, let me provide some historical context and take a moment to explain why we felt it was in the best interest of our CPS students to implement the change in State tests at this time.

Back in June, 2014, the School Committee approved my recommendation to administer the MCAS in the 2014/15 school year.  This recommendation was informed by a range of information such as concerns raised by CPS teachers as well as some parents. Additionally, there were concerns with the PARCC assessment itself, such as two separate testing periods (Performance Based and End of Year Assessments), and overall more testing time than the MCAS. Additionally, the State had not yet addressed other concerns raised from the pilot in which we participated in the Spring of 2014.  Therefore, I recommended a year ago that we stay with MCAS until the State Board made up its mind as to which direction it would take and whether PARCC or MCAS would be the required statewide assessment going forward.  Hence, CPS implemented MCAS in Spring 2015.

This past November, the Massachusetts State Board of Education voted to end MCAS and replace it with the “Next Generation” of standardized testing in Massachusetts to be known as “MCAS 2.0,” which is scheduled to go into effect in the Spring of 2017. According to the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education, MCAS 2.0 will draw “heavily” on the PARCC assessment, meaning it will be tied to higher learning standards and will expect students statewide to demonstrate critical thinking and analytic skills; moreover, there is an expectation that MCAS 2.0 will be fully implemented as a computer-based test by 2019. This action by the State Board affects every school district in the state.

That brings us to the present time.  Following that State Board vote, all districts were given the choice to continue with one last year of MCAS or pilot PARCC this spring.  After hearing from the State, we consulted with our school principals about the choice and asked them to apprise teachers of the quick turnaround time for decision-making (we had a December 18 deadline from the State to choose MCAS or PARCC).   At the December 15 School Committee meeting, I recommended that Cambridge leave MCAS behind and start getting our students and staff ready for the “Next Generation” assessments that are on their way. To inform the School Committee’s vote, we provided several reasons for moving to the pilot PARCC assessment in using 2016 as a transition year from the old MCAS to the new MCAS 2.0:

 

  1. This would be an opportunity for students and staff to experience the new assessment content and format;
  2. Individual schools would decide the pace for use of technology when administering the assessment—the State expectation for full technology implementation is Spring 2019, and in fact most of our schools have decided to stay with the paper/pencil format in 2016;
  3. This would be an opportunity for the district to monitor and adjust technology needs as part of a multi-year process;
  4. We will be “held harmless” in terms of our accountability demands, an important consideration given our new Level 2 status.

We felt that the best way to transition our students to the Next Generation assessment this year was to pilot the PARCC exam this spring, with the understanding that the students’ scores would not affect our newly-attained Level 2 status—we are one of the very few urban districts in the state to have achieved this standing.

While some people have expressed concern about the impact of school moves on implementation issues, the truth is that two of our four elementary/upper schools have already completed their move to a new building (Martin Luther King and Putnam Ave. Upper Schools), and the move for King Open and Cambridge Street Upper Schools will be completed before the February break. The PARCC pilot will be administered a month later than the MCAS (in April) giving teachers and students an extra month of teaching and learning time before the testing period. We felt it was in the best interest of students to have that extra time for instruction without being pressured to take the state exam three weeks after their move. Additionally, building principals will have more flexibility in scheduling the assessments during that later time frame, and leftover stress associated with the moves should have dissipated by that time.

Questions were also raised regarding students on IEPs and 504 plans. For those students with an IEP or 504 plan, most MCAS accommodations are also allowed for PARCC. The students’ plans will not require substantial changes for this assessment cycle.  The required revisions to the plans will be made over the course of the next year at their regularly scheduled review meetings.  Extended time will be allowed for students with disabilities and English Language Learners (ELLs) on the PARCC tests.

In 2015, when CPS chose to stay with MCAS, there was a roughly 50/50 split statewide in terms of districts electing to take either the MCAS or the PARCC.  For 2016, approximately two-thirds of school districts in Massachusetts will be using the PARCC assessment. According to the latest data statewide, 269,000 students will be taking PARCC this spring, and 115,000 students will be taking MCAS. Clearly, this is the direction education and assessment is moving in Massachusetts.

Additionally, there have been significant improvements to the PARCC test since my original recommendation. For example, the testing periods have been reduced to one, rather than two, and the time of testing has been reduced on average by 90 minutes per grade. With MCAS being an untimed test, many of our students were sitting in testing for full days at a time, impacting instructional time. As I noted above, with a later testing window, teachers and students will have more time for instruction taking the PARCC this year than in years past with MCAS.

As a district, we believe in providing all students the opportunity to access the highest of expectations. MCAS is an eighteen year-old test and is not as rigorous as the PARCC.  PARCC will assess critical thinking, reasoning and the ability of students to comprehend and conduct a much higher level of literary analysis. Providing the opportunity for students to try out these types of assessments, without the pressure of accountability status, allows us to see where we are as a district in terms of our curriculum and instruction, and gives us the room to make the necessary adjustments and changes in preparation for the computer-based assessments coming in the next three years. The information we collect from this pilot PARCC administration will help us understand what students really know and have mastered in terms of grade level standards.

We fully appreciate the strong opinions and feelings associated with any kind of State testing, both in Cambridge and beyond, and are hopeful that this statement helps to clarify the thinking that went into our recommendation and the School Committee’s subsequent action.  The main point is that the system of assessments is changing, and we believe that it is in the best interests of our students and staff to get ready.  Taking advantage of the opportunity to have some practice with the new type of assessment seems a wiser course than clinging to the past.  We feel confident that phasing in the new assessments is more respectful to our faculty and staff, many of whom understandably are feeling “initiative fatigue,” than suddenly implementing an inevitable change a year down the road.  Working together, we can make this work and prepare our students for the challenges that await them, in school and in life.

Going forward, we are planning a community conversation, likely in February, to help inform our families and staff about the nature, extent and use of assessments in the Cambridge Public Schools.  Details will follow shortly.

Posted by jyoung On January 13, 2016 at 12:28 PM