Every year since third grade, the months of March and May have meant only one thing: MCAS. For two or three days in each month, students in classrooms across the state sit in silent rooms for hours and muddle their way through the thick, professional packets. Reading passages with questions to follow, the dreaded five-paragraph essay, and math diagrams to solve are the most prominent memories I have of these long spring afternoons. MCAS is not very difficult if the teacher has taught the curriculum well, and students are often given practice packets for months leading up to the big day. In fact, it is not uncommon for a few kids from each grade to achieve a perfect score on the English or Math tests. MCAS is long and painful, but very doable for most students.
Last year, change began to take place in the seemingly immovable system. My English class was selected to take part in the pilot test of the brand-new PARCC exam. There is no better surprise than getting told you got lucky enough to take part in even more standardized testing! In all seriousness though, taking this new test was interesting in that we got to see what the MCAS will become. The PARCC test is different in that it is entirely online, including all readings, drawings, diagrams and open responses. It took a while to get used to the new interface, but once I had the hang of it, the exam was basically just a computerized MCAS. I felt that the readings were more advanced and questions more analytical than MCAS, but overall, there were no major changes to the world of statewide tests.
So, which is better (or should I say, less painful), MCAS or PARCC? My answer: neither. MCAS is helpful in that it introduces students at a young age to the concept of standardized testing, and PARCC combines testing with the use of technology which cuts back on our environmental footprint (and makes my inner Prius driver very happy). But what do these tests really accomplish? Sure, they help track that students in Massachusetts are being taught what they should be under the curriculum, but there are other, more beneficial ways of accomplishing this. I feel that the standardized tests taken by elementary, middle andhigh school students should resemble the SAT or ACT. Rather than asking questions about what an author meant by certain phrases or how to find perimeter and area, the tests should focus on vocabulary, critical thinking, and logic to get students used to thinking in this way. These two tests in the long run are much more important to individual students since they play a large role in college admission. If the MCAS or PARCC were treated like an early version of the SAT for younger grades, students would be starting to think in terms of this test years before they even have to take it. Rather than having to spend hundreds on private tutors or classes to prepare for the SAT and ACT like many families do each year, the school system could provide this service all the while checking to see if schools are teaching what they need to. I’m not saying we should do away with standardized testing, I’m simply advocating that we reinvent it.