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Next Generation MCAS: Plans for High School Assessments

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
December 9, 2016


We remain on schedule for this spring's initial administration of the next-generation English language arts and mathematics MCAS tests in grades 3 through 8. At the same time, we are continuing to think about and plan for the next-generation MCAS high school tests further down the road. In doing so, we are drawing upon the work of the High School Testing workgroup which met last winter and spring under the direction of Senior Associate Commissioner Brooke Clenchy (who has subsequently returned to the field as superintendent of the Nashoba Regional School District). We are also appreciative of the comments received from educators and the public at the Board's listening sessions last school year across the state.

Based on these discussions and input, I have put together six policy recommendations for your consideration. We will spend some time discussing these at our December meeting, and then again at our joint meeting with the Board of Higher Education in January. I believe these recommendations all make sense, and I look forward to discussing them with our stakeholder groups before I ask you to make any final decisions. Some of the recommendations will also require formal amendments to the Board's regulations.

  1. Provide clear and accurate signals to students about whether they are on track for the expectations of colleges, employers, and civic engagement.

    There is a need for us to do a better job at assessing students' readiness for success after high school, whether in higher education, the workforce, the military or other endeavors. Many students who score Proficient or Advanced on the current Grade 10 MCAS subsequently learn that they need remediation in college. To provide students with the opportunity to bolster their readiness for college and career expectations, we need to provide students with accurate and clear indications of whether they are on track as they move through the middle and high school grades.

  2. Keep the high school competency determination for English language arts and mathematics at grade 10 for the near future.

    Our competency determination (CD), which students must meet in order to receive a high school diploma, is set by law at the tenth grade level. This requirement, first enacted as part of the Education Reform Act of 1993, has helped ensure that our high school graduates meet minimum levels of literacy and numeracy. But as we've discussed at length over the past several years, there is a growing recognition that those tenth grade standards are insufficient to ensure that our graduates are well prepared for success after high school.

    Moving the CD to the 11th or 12th grade, however, would be extremely challenging and, in my opinion, too disruptive to consider at this time. Schools and students are already dealing with the transition to the next-generation tests, computer-based testing, and, as discussed below, the possible addition of a history and social science test. The need to amend the law would also create uncertainty as to timing.

    My recommendation is that we move ahead with the development of high quality, next-generation MCAS tests in English language arts and mathematics for the tenth grade CD, and (as discussed below) at the same time explore and experiment with 11th and 12th grade options that are better aligned with college and career readiness standards. Only after we've had considerable experience with those options, and have clearly demonstrated their validity, should we begin a discussion of whether to phase out the tenth grade tests and move the CD to a later grade.

  3. Add history and social science to the competency determination.

    There appears to be considerable interest in our plans to update our history and social science curriculum standards, including the addition of a robust civics education component, and to add this subject to the CD. The Board already has legislative authority to include history and social science in the CD, but an amendment to the Board's regulations would be required.

    The review of the curriculum standards for history and social science is just now starting, and in FY18 we expect to begin initial planning on the design of a next-generation MCAS assessment in this subject area. As part of this planning, we will take the opportunity to research and consider new and innovative assessment approaches. Assuming funding is obtained to develop and administer a new assessment, I would envision that we would administer it for at least one or two years before adding it to the CD requirement. The class of 2023 is likely the earliest for whom this would become a graduation requirement.

  4. Eliminate the high school chemistry and technology/engineering tests.

    The overwhelming majority of high school students satisfy the science and technology/engineering (STE) component of the CD through the biology and introductory physics tests; last year, only five percent of students took the chemistry or technology/engineering tests. The cost and effort required to maintain these two low incidence tests is not an efficient use of our limited resources.

  5. Add an introductory physics re-testing opportunity in February.

    We currently offer a biology test in February, in addition to the regular end-of-year administration, to accommodate both those schools with block scheduling and those students who did not earn a passing score the first time and want an additional testing opportunity. With growing interest in physics as the foundational course in the high school science sequence, we recommend adding an introductory physics test to the February schedule.

  6. Convene a stakeholder workgroup to identify and recommend options for a grade 11/grade 12 assessment program to gauge students' readiness for success after high school.

    As noted above, there is a need for us to do a better job at assessing students' readiness for success after high school, whether in higher education, the workforce, the military or other endeavors. But the multiple paths that graduates pursue make it particularly challenging to assess preparation and readiness. The student applying to UMass-Lowell to study bioengineering and the student graduating from a vocational culinary arts program and looking for a job in the hospitality industry have very different needs and expectations. We're also cognizant of the many other scheduled activities in high school, and we've heard loudly and clearly from our stakeholders that we need to minimize additional time lost to standardized testing.

So, in looking at options for grade 11 and grade 12, I recommend that we take this opportunity, and take the time, to think creatively and not assume the answer is another one size fits all standardized test. We should be thinking about multiple assessment pathways, that might make use of existing college entrance and advanced placement tests, performance based assessments and portfolio work, participation in enrichment and out-of-school programs, and other emerging non-traditional forms of assessment. The U.S. Department of Education is providing funding to a number of states for the development of innovative assessment models, and we need to investigate and learn from those efforts. By keeping the CD at grade 10, as recommended earlier, we gain additional time to be thoughtful about the college and career readiness standard.


Deputy Commissioner Jeff Wulfson, Senior Associate Commissioner Heather Peske, and Associate Commissioner Michol Stapel will join us at the December 20 meeting for this initial discussion.

Last Updated: December 13, 2016
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