Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System

A Message from Commissioner Chester about Statewide Assessments

April 2016


The landmark 1993 Massachusetts education reform law directed the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to develop and administer a statewide assessment system to measure the academic achievement and progress of districts, schools, and individual students. Under the Board's direction, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education developed the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), which has been administered annually since 1998. In 2011 Massachusetts joined the Partnership for Advancement of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a multi-state consortium formed to develop a new set of assessments for English language arts and mathematics. In November 2013, the Board voted to conduct a two-year "test drive" of the PARCC assessments, in order to decide whether we should adopt PARCC in place of our existing MCAS assessments in those two subjects. In the spring of 2014, PARCC was field tested in a randomized sample of schools in Massachusetts and in the other consortium states. In the spring of 2015, PARCC was administered in full operational mode. In Massachusetts, districts were given the choice of administering either the computer-based version of PARCC, the paper-based version of PARCC, or MCAS. On November 17, 2015, the Board voted to adopt a path to a next-generation MCAS. That test will be used by all students in grades 3-8 in spring 2017. It will eventually be given on a computer and will incorporate elements of the existing MCAS and PARCC assessments along with questions unique to the new assessment. For spring 2016, districts again have the choice of administering either the computer-based version of PARCC, the paper-based version of PARCC, or MCAS.

Why Do We Need a Statewide Assessment?

The 1993 education reform law directed the Board to institute an annual statewide assessment program. This was part of the "grand bargain" incorporated in that landmark statute - clear standards, a significant increase in state funding and other resources, and accountability for results. A lively debate is currently underway, here in Massachusetts and across the nation, on the subject of standardized testing. It is entirely appropriate for us to examine the content and methods of assessment, the time we spend on testing, how test results best can help to improve instruction, and whether test preparation activities are crowding out more effective uses of classroom time. But I disagree with those who would eliminate or suspend our annual statewide assessments. I know of no high performing system that fails to benchmark its performance and hold itself responsible for results. MCAS results have supported our education efforts in a number of ways:
  • The Commonwealth has a constitutional obligation to ensure that all students have the opportunity to receive an adequate education. MCAS results are one of several sources of information the Department and the Board use to identify schools and districts that require some additional assistance or intervention from the state.
  • At the same time, test results allow us to identify higher performing schools and districts and spotlight effective practices.
  • High quality assessments send important signals about the kinds of curriculum and instruction, teaching and learning that are reflected in the standards.
  • Teachers and administrators are provided with detailed analyses of student test results, offering useful information on what parts of their curriculum are effective and where instruction needs to be strengthened.
  • Parents deserve objective feedback on their children's progress through elementary and secondary school grades. When students are performing below their grade-level expectations, we hope that their MCAS score reports will prompt constructive conversations among parents, teachers, and guidance counselors.
  • Passing the tenth grade MCAS tests is one of the requirements for a student to receive a Massachusetts high school diploma. Before education reform, too many students, especially in our larger and poorer cities, were receiving diplomas without having mastered even a baseline foundation of skills and knowledge.
  • Finally, test scores help us to demonstrate our achievements and our progress to the Legislature and to the public at large. We spend more than $16 billion a year on K-12 public education in the Commonwealth. We have an obligation to demonstrate to the taxpayers that we are spending that money effectively.
I agree that testing by itself does not improve instruction - but it does provide essential information to support those improvement efforts. The 2001 reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (popularly called "No Child Left Behind") added a federal mandate for annual statewide testing. The recent reauthorization of this law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, continues the federal mandate for annual statewide testing, and the U.S. Education Department requires action by states in cases where participation drops below 95 percent of students overall or for students in subgroups.

General Concerns about Standardized Testing

Many comments and concerns we heard at our public comment sessions related to testing in general rather than the strengths and weaknesses of specific tests. Here are my thoughts on some of the comments we heard most frequently.
  • "Our tests don't measure everything." I agree that we want our schools to foster many skills that are not easily measured on standardized statewide tests, for example, creativity or working with others cooperatively. But I also believe that English language arts and mathematics are foundational for success in all other areas. If our schools are not teaching students to be literate and numerate, they are failing those students, regardless of what other successes they may be having.
  • "Testing takes up too much time." This is a widely expressed concern, not only from the public but from educators as well. We have an obligation to ensure that the time required to administer state tests is necessary to obtain the information we need. But concern over "too much testing" also reflects on assessments selected by districts themselves, as well as classroom time spent in preparing for tests. Research indicates that the value of these activities varies widely. The Department has been studying the amount of time spent in districts on statewide assessments, and we will continue to be vigilant in this area as we encourage and assist districts in evaluating the usefulness of their own testing programs and test preparation activities.
  • "Statewide tests put too much pressure on students." For students, MCAS is a "high stakes" test only in tenth grade, where it is part of the high school graduation requirement. There are no high stakes for students taking the test in the lower grades.
  • "Our tests are too difficult for students with disabilities and English language learners." We offer a range of accommodations, special tests, and testing policies for these students to reflect their unique needs. We will continue to work with the advocates for these groups to ensure that our testing program is fair. But I do not want to return to the days when we had low aspirations and expectations for these students.
  • "Testing in some subjects forces schools to deemphasize others." We currently administer statewide tests in English language arts, mathematics, and science and technology/engineering. The 1993 education reform law also calls for tests in history and social science, foreign languages, and the arts. The Department is in the process of updating the 2003 Massachusetts History and Social Science Curriculum Framework and adding a history and social science component to MCAS.
  • "Private testing companies could misuse confidential student data." We have contracted with private testing companies for more than two decades to help administer our large-scale assessments, including MCAS. All use of confidential student data is subject to federal and state data privacy laws, and we require that our contractors use best practices in data security. There is no evidence that any of our current testing contractors have misused confidential data, and it is unlikely that they would stay in business very long if they did.


While the statewide tests that Massachusetts students take are just one measure of a student's progress, they reflect a student's success in fundamental areas of learning. These results are an important source of information for parents and educators, and in the aggregate, they inform the Commonwealth's education policies and investments.

Last Updated: April 1, 2016

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