As the school year kicks off, Nantucket High School looks to the spring with a degree of uncertainty. This year, the Massachusetts Department of Education made the decision to transition some of the MCAS tests from its traditional paper format to a new online system. Both the math and English sections of the MCAS will now be taken on computers, while the science section will continue to be taken in the traditional format. Students with learning disabilities as well as students who are first year English learners will be permitted to take the traditional paper based MCAS.
There are a few reasons why these tests are being transferred to the computer. Firstly, the old MCAS was ultimately a slow and inefficient process. In the past, MCAS results would not be made available to individual schools until the next school year had already begun, giving administration little time to make necessary adjustments to the school’s teaching methods. By introducing this next generation MCAS, schools will be able to analyze data from that year’s test, and adjust accordingly. As well as increasing efficiency, this new test will be more cost effective and will generate significantly less paper waste.
Not only are the math and English tests being taken online, but the long composition test session is being cut from the English test entirely. Because this portion of the test has been removed, the ELA testing period will be reduced from three to two days, and the long composition will no longer be required for graduation.
Typically with the long composition piece of the test, students are expected to come into the test with background knowledge of around three works of literature that they can draw information from for the essay. Instead, the questions are tailored to have more of an open-response style. Students will be asked to read excerpts from given works of literature and answer questions based on those passages. This change could bring up a potential problem in the eyes of the english department.
Sophomore English teacher Page Martineau said that this change “Demonstrates a move away from valuing literature, towards valuing a students capacity for utilizing specific textual evidence from shorter passages” While these comprehension skills are by no means meritless, Martineau expressed a concern with the effects this new test will have on schools within the state. The Nantucket High School English department curriculum has a generally strong emphasis on the reading and analysis of great works of literature. “My worry is that across the state there will be classes where kids don’t read novels.” Martineau added.
With this new test structure, teachers are concerned with how to best set up their students for success. It is apparent that important information regarding the nature of this year’s MCAS has not been sufficiently distributed. A few of the science teachers at NHS did not seem to know whether or not the science section would be taken on the computer, sparking even more confusion regarding practice test materials. Further, members of the English department felt out of the loop concerning the preparation materials for the test in the spring. Anne Phaneuf, a sophomore English teacher, stated that the information they have received is “…leaving teachers quite honestly with more questions than answers.”
The confusion lies in the fact that the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website does not have up to date practice tests for the tenth grade English section of the MCAS. Because these tests will be based on the same English curriculum, the material covered in class will not be useless by any means. Therefore, the main challenge teachers will face is determining how to incorporate this new format into their in class practice sessions. The Director of Curriculum and Assessment, Michael Horton suggested a temporary solution. “I think it’s a great experience to take the grade eight test. It is close to the grade ten test, it’s still the same kind of format.” Horton said.
This concept is consistent with ideas expressed by Ms. Phaneuf regarding how to spend class time in preparation for the MCAS. “I don’t teach to a test, I don’t want to teach to a test, I don’t want my students to feel like they’re in a class where they are test subjects… but I definitely want to make sure that I am setting my students up for success as best I possibly can.” said Ms. Phaneuf.
In the end, the majority of these students are familiar with the layout of this test. Horton went on to say that “It’s not really that big of a change for students because they have been doing it all along. It’s the high school teachers who haven’t seen it before.” Sophomore Ruby Dupont had a similar consensus, stating that because her grade has taken these kinds of tests in years past, she is not as concerned with how it will go. “We have taken these computer tests throughout middle school, so I don’t think it will be too big of a problem.” Dupont said.
This confidence in the sophomore body’s ability to perform does not dismiss the fact that there has been a disconnect between the teachers and the Department of Education. Phaneuf emphasized the importance of administration’s role in distributing this information, saying “We classroom teachers are just looking for guidance.” Horton communicated his plans to encourage the NHS administration to talk with the teachers about information such as the changes to MCAS in the future. Despite the uncertainty this early in the year, there will be plenty of time to brief the faculty on all the changes being made and how they should prepare for them.
By Owen Hudson