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MCAS testing may expand

State considers ways to inject critical thinking

'Our employers are telling us more urgently . . . that we are not preparing enough of our students to do the jobs of the present and future.' PAUL REVILLE, State education secretary "Our employers are telling us more urgently . . . that we are not preparing enough of our students to do the jobs of the present and future." PAUL REVILLE, State education secretary
By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / November 19, 2008
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SOMERVILLE - Senior state education leaders are considering expanding the state MCAS exams to include science experiments, group projects, and oral presentations in an attempt to inject more critical thinking into the widely criticized tests.

The recommendations, which were unveiled yesterday, respond to growing concerns that the state's high school graduates are entering college or the workplace lacking the sophisticated skills needed to succeed, such as the ability to solve problems, communicate, or work in teams.

The state originally emphasized these "21st Century skills" after passage of the 1993 Education Reform Act, but many schools stopped teaching them as the state ramped up the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, which placed a higher premium on content knowledge. Sophomores must pass the English, math, and science exams to graduate, while students in grades 3 through 8 are also tested.

A task force presented its report and recommendations to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education yesterday after a six-month review of how to integrate these more sophisticated skills into the MCAS exams and the everyday rigor of the classroom.

The prospect of moving beyond a paper-and-pencil test to evaluate students immediately prompted harsh criticism from some conservative education policy groups that the state was backing away from high standards. But state Education Secretary Paul Reville emphasized at the start of the meeting that the changes would complement, not replace, the 10-year-old MCAS tests.

"Our employers are telling us, more urgently with each passing year, that we are not preparing enough of our students to do the jobs of the present and future," said Reville, reading from prepared remarks in the auditorium at Somerville High School. "They tell us too few can make coherent oral presentations, solve complex problems using either creativity or technology . . . and too few have the motivation and work ethic needed for success."

Gary Gottlieb, a task force member and president of Brigham & Women's Hospital and the Boston Private Industry Council, told the board "even highly educated people are not able to express themselves and convey the knowledge they have."

The recommendations, which can be approved by the board without legislative review, could take up to 10 years to implement, Reville said. They would require a massive overhaul of teacher training programs to include the new skills, as well as revising the state's academic standards so the new skills are emphasized in each subject tested by MCAS, officials said.

More than 500,00 students in grades 3 through 8 and Grade 10 are tested annually in English and math, under the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, adopted in 1993. Students at some grade levels are also tested in science and social studies.

One of the top priorities of the task force is adding a lab experiment to the 10th-grade MCAS science exam in the next few years. The task force is also urging the incorporation of oral presentations or other testing methods into the yet-to-be-developed 10th-grade US history exam, which becomes a graduation requirement for the class of 2012.

The 22-member task force, which was appointed by the board earlier this year when Reville was still chairman, was made up of prominent leaders in business, higher education, K-12 education, parents, and teacher unions.

It remains unclear how the state would add the new skill-based elements to the MCAS system. Officials said some approaches, such as lab experiments and oral presentations, could be administered and evaluated by local schools. That, however, could raise questions about the possibility of inconsistent evaluations from one school to another. A private contractor scores the MCAS exams.

But before the state can figure out how to assess the skills, the board must first refine the definitions of each of the skills, which include global awareness, cultural competency, and information literacy. The task force report presented yesterday acknowledged that the definitions of many skills are vague, leading some critics to write off the proposal as an attempt to water down standards.

"Many of the skills are unmeasurable and ill-defined," said Jamie Gass, director of the Center for School Reform at the Pioneer Institute, a conservative research group. "What we are seeing here is an incremental dismantling of education reform that has made Massachusetts the highest-performing state in the country."

The task force did not project how much the changes would cost, and officials acknowledge the state's fiscal crisis may mean they will have to turn to nonprofits for financial support. Reville has already directed the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to reduce its budget proposal for next year to $547 million, a nearly $50 million cut from the current budget.

Since its inception, the MCAS has been ensnared in controversy with groups, such as Pioneer, favoring MCAS as a graduation requirement, while teacher unions, many local school administrators, parents, and school boards have opposed it. A growing number of higher education officials have also faulted the exam as a poor indicator of students' readiness for college. Two years ago, when Governor Deval Patrick ran for office, he won over many MCAS critics by expressing a desire to expand MCAS to include other assessment measures.

The proposed changes somewhat appeased some MCAS critics yesterday, although they would like the board to drop MCAS as a graduation requirement, a change that the state board does not support.

"It's a step in the right direction," said Paul Toner, vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, who oversaw the task force's research on assessment and accountability. "We don't think a child's future should be determined by a paper-and-pencil test. . . . We have to have kids do things, as opposed to just sitting and studying things."

Leaders of the state's superintendent and school board associations voiced their support, especially of changes to science and US history tests. Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said it will allow history teachers to move teaching beyond just facts and allow students to develop and argue their political interpretations, not only in class discussions, but in essays and projects.

Revamping the MCAS comes after a report released Monday that showed that two-thirds of Boston public school graduates who enrolled in college after receiving diplomas in 2000 failed to graduate from college seven years later. The report, sponsored by the Boston public schools and the Private Industry Council, have raised concerns that the city's schools and the higher education system are failing to adequately prepare students for more sophisticated jobs.

Another report, released last month by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, found that the majority of high school graduates and many college graduates lacked critical job skills, such as teamwork, problem-solving, critical thinking, and communication.

"Some would have us hang a 'mission accomplished' banner on Massachusetts, but we are not done," Reville said. "We can do better. We must do better."

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