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Adult and Community Learning Services (ACLS)

Off-Topic Compositions on MCAS English Language Arts Tests

To:Superintendents, Principals, Directors of Charter Schools, Approved Private Special Education Schools, Institutional Schools, and Educational Collaboratives, and English Department Heads
From:Jeffrey Nellhaus, Acting Commissioner
Date:February 5, 2008

The purpose of this memorandum is to alert you to a concern regarding students' compositions written in response to the grade 10 MCAS English Language Arts (ELA) Composition writing prompts. As you know, the grade 10 Composition requires students to respond to a writing prompt based on a work of literature that they have read. Unfortunately, a large number of students (nearly 15%) who recently participated in the November 2007 retest did not respond to the prompt as required. As a result, their essays were deemed non-scorable (NS), earning them 0 out of 20 possible points for the Composition. As the ELA test is worth a total of 72 points, this significantly impacted many students' total scores.

Upon discovering this problem, the Department arranged to randomly select a sample of these compositions and analyze the student response patterns. All of the compositions studied were confirmed to be off-topic (non-responsive to the writing prompt), and the overwhelming majority involved a simple retelling of the plot of a book without addressing the topic of the prompt.

I strongly encourage you to share this finding with your English Language Arts administrators and faculty, so that they can remind students of the importance of producing an ELA Composition that directly addresses the writing prompt. In order to support these efforts, I want to remind you to visit our Web site at MCAS Student Work/Scoring Guides for access to all ELA writing prompts administered since 2003, along with the MCAS Composition scoring guide and sample student responses (representing the range of score points that can be assigned). Test items and student work for all content areas can also be viewed at this site. Finally, I have attached to this memorandum a copy of the November 2007 retest writing prompt and an example of an "off-topic" composition.

Images of student compositions from the November 2007 retest will be available to principals at MCAS Service Center beginning February 15. Please ask your faculty to examine their students' compositions along with the scoring criteria, and remind your students of the importance of addressing the writing prompt in their compositions.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter. If you have any questions about this issue, please contact Jennifer O'Toole, Administrator for English Language Arts Assessment, at 781-338-3263.

Last Updated: February 7, 2008

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