By: Shaunna Harrington, Ph.D.
Associate Teaching Professor, Northeastern University @shaunna3830
After a year of teaching and learning during a pandemic that has taken the lives of more than half a million Americans, devastated the economic security of millions more, and challenged the social fabric and mental health of nearly everyone, it makes no sense to administer MCAS this spring.
But even after the pandemic ends, we need a different system for assessing the learning of our students in the Commonwealth.
Commissioner Jeff C. Riley, in his June 2019 report to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, “Our Way Forward,” acknowledged that in too many cases, MCAS has led to a narrowing of the curriculum and a focus on superficial coverage. He stated the result has been low levels of student engagement, particularly for low income students and students of color who are more likely to be in schools that emphasize test preparation. Riley wants our schools to focus on deeper learning, which involves asking students “to create, to invent, and to combine and apply concepts in new ways,” and to “assume increasing levels of responsibility.” In schools focused on deeper learning, he explained, there is a higher level of student engagement, which is critical for making our education system more equitable.
Riley did not call for the end of MCAS, but he suggested the need for something different, stating, “we must develop statewide models of engaging tasks – activities that ask students to master content knowledge and life skills through the creation of meaningful, original work products.”
That work is already happening. The Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment (MCIEA), which is comprised of eight school districts, has been creating valid and reliable performance assessments and rubrics that are aligned with the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks. In the performance assessments, students must demonstrate their learning by applying their knowledge and skills to address realistic challenges. Many teachers use performance assessments in their classroom-based assessment system, but MCIEA is creating performance tasks and rubrics that are used across districts, which provides a way to assess students across the state – a viable alternative to MCAS.
Teachers and other school-based educators must play a key role in the new assessment system we create in our Commonwealth. MCAS removes them from that role, and we have been left with an assessment system that cannot fulfill its most important function, which is to improve student learning (not just measure it). Teachers in the MCIEA consortium are not passive recipients of performance tasks created by “outside experts”. They learn how to design, validate and implement performance assessments and how to reliably score student work. (Take a look at the task bank they have created.)
We have learned from this pandemic that our education system can make big changes, very quickly. So why are we holding on to a statewide assessment system we know is not working?
All my best,