Updated at 6:35 p.m.
MALDEN, Mass. — Massachusetts students will take a new standardized test beginning in the spring of 2017. The yet-undeveloped test, unofficially dubbed “MCAS 2.0,” will be a hybrid of the state’s current MCAS exam and the PARCC test that Massachusetts districts have piloted for two years.
It marks the first major assessment overhaul since Bay State students began taking Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests nearly two decades ago.
The change was approved in an 8-3 vote by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Tuesday.
“I think it bodes well for the future of the Commonwealth and for the education system going forward,” said Mitchell Chester, education commissioner. “It’s time for a next-generation. We’ve been sitting on our MCAS assessment for 18 years now.”
The three votes against the new test came from the board’s student representative, parent representative and teacher representative.
What exactly the hybrid test will look like or how much it will cost the state to develop remains unclear. Several board members raised concerns about putting a new test in action by 2017, but Chester says he’s confident it’s possible.
“I would not have recommended it if I didn’t think we could do it. It’s an aggressive timeline, but we think it’s doable, in part because we are building on existing development,” said Chester. “We’re not starting from scratch.”
But not all are happy. Student representative Donald Willyard, a senior at Everett’s Pioneer Charter School, is one of three board members who voted against the new test. He says students don’t want anything based on PARCC for several reasons — including technology issues, strict time limits and out-of-touch questions.
“I would favor us improving MCAS but starting with MCAS, rather than jumping into something that we’re still not quite sure if it’s reliable or not,” said Willyard.
In approving the new test, the board also voted to extend the “hold harmless” provision an extra year. It means districts and schools using a new test will not be downgraded for poor test results in 2017, as well as 2016.
After years of schools piloting PARCC and a robust public debate over whether Massachusetts should adopt that exam, education commissioner Mitchell Chester surprised many by recommending last week that the board choose to adopt an MCAS/PARCC hybrid test instead. Chester also chairs the governing board of the PARCC consortium, a group of states dedicated to developing and using PARCC tests.
Chester has cited his desire to retain state control over the assessment, while still using elements of the tests developed by PARCC as a cost-effective way of updating MCAS, which he said “has reached a point of diminishing returns.”
Teach Plus executive director Lindsay Sobel wishes the board had chosen PARCC.
“Ideally we would have wanted the full adoption of PARCC,” said Sobel. “Educators really want clarity on what they’re preparing their kids for. And they’ve examined PARCC and found it a really high-quality assessment.”
Despite the official move away from a PARCC test, Massachusetts will remain a member of the PARCC consortium. And the new test could still be heavily based on PARCC, the commissioner told reporters in a call last week. In addition, the 2016 MCAS will include “a limited number” of PARCC items, according to the education board’s statement on the vote.
For this spring, local districts will have the option of continuing with PARCC or switching from MCAS to PARCC. MCAS will remain the required test for high school graduation through at least the class of 2019, meaning that sophomores will still take it in spring 2017.
The education board expects all schools to give the new test on computer by 2019. Officials say upgrades to make that possible could cost $2.4 million.
Watertown teacher Deb King thinks it’s unrealistic that schools will be ready to deliver entirely digital tests in the next three years.
“Watertown’s an average middle-class blue-collar community. Even with the support that we get, we are in dire need for upgrades in technology,” said King.
Others say the conversation on testing ignores what’s really at stake: the aspects of teaching and learning that can’t be measured on test.
“We’ve entered a rabbit hole,” said Barbara Madeloni, president of the 110,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association. “We have to exit that rabbit hole and think deeply about what we want for public education.”
For now, public education officials remain focused on testing. They say they’ll name a test vendor by July.