What’s Up with MCAS This Year?

What’s Up with MCAS This Year?

MCAS English Language Arts Schedule

  • Grades 3 & 5: Tuesday, March 29 & Wednesday, March 30
  • Grades 4 & 7: Thursday, March 31 & Friday, April 1
  • Grades 6 & 8:  Monday, April 4 & Tuesday, April 5


As you may know, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved a plan in November to develop a “next generation” MCAS (dubbed “MCAS 2.0”), rather than adopt the PARCC test created by a consortium of states.   The new test, which is expected to borrow heavily from PARCC, will not be ready until the 2016-17 school year.  Massachusetts had been a leading contributor to the development of PARCC and 46% of the school districts in Massachusetts administered it on a trial basis last year. Brookline elected to stay with MCAS until the decision making process at the state level was finalized.

For this school year, districts that administered PARCC last year must do so again.  Districts who administered MCAS last year may choose whether to give PARCC or MCAS this year. Again, Brookline has wisely (in my view) decided to stick with MCAS.  Why invest teacher and student time in learning about a new test –only to have it change again the following year?

MCAS Changes This Year

In December, we learned that there will be a few changes in MCAS this year, most notably in English Language Arts (ELA).  Most of the MCAS test will remain the same. Students will read different types of passages and respond to two types of questions:  multiple choice questions and open response questions (written paragraphs worth 4 points each). Students in third grade also have short answer questions worth 2 points.  The changes in the test include the following:

  • The dreaded “Long Composition” test (given only in grades 4 & 7) has been eliminated.
  • Session 2 for all grades will be broken into Section 2A and Section 2B.  Section 2A will be MCAS as usual.  Section 2B will consist of a sample PARCC Narrative Writing section.

What does the Narrative Writing test involve?  After reading a story, students answer:

  • Four evidence-based multiple-choice questions
  • One narrative writing response

Each evidence-based multiple-choice question has two parts.  Here’s an example from fifth grade.  After reading a passage from the book “The Bread Winner,” students are asked a series of two-part questions, such as:

A. What does the narrator’s point of view reveal about Sarah?  (4 choices listed)

B. Which evidence from the passage supports the answer to Part A? (4 choices listed)

The narrative writing question for this passage is: “Write a journal entry about the day the table arrived from the point of view of Sarah, Daddy, or Mama. Use details from the story to describe how the table was used, the emotional effect the table had on the family member chosen, and thoughts about how the table will affect business in the future.”

Math and Science Testing

The MCAS Mathematics test will continue in May for Grades 3-8. Students will continue to answer multiple choice, short answer, and open response questions. The only change expected in the mathematics test this year is the inclusion of 6 trial items from PARCC.

The MCAS Science and Technology/Engineering test will continue in May in grades 5 and 8.

A Word About Test Preparation

Teachers prepare students for the testing by reviewing test-taking strategies and working with sample questions. A particular emphasis is placed on learning how to write a complete open response question. This year, that work will include a bit of exposure to the new “evidence-based” two-part question format, as well as the narrative writing task. Literacy and math specialists and special educators also work to provide a “double dose” of practice with the students with whom they work.

As I wrote last year, I offer a word of caution from Tim Shanahan, a distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He wrote a piece called “How and How Not to Prepare Students for the New Tests,” in which he reminds us that the goal is not to prepare students for tests, but to make them “sophisticated and powerful readers.”  He suggests five steps to help students get there:

  1. 1.     “Have students read extensively within instruction.
  2. 2.     Have students read increasing amounts of text without guidance or support.
  3. 3.     Make sure the texts are rich in context and sufficiently challenging.
  4. 4.     Have students explain their answers and provide text evidence supporting their claims.
  5. 5.     Engage students in writing about text.”

In other words, the best test preparation is high quality teaching and learning every day.

Rick Rogers


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