An open letter to the Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education:

Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D.
Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education

Dear Commissioner Chester,

I work with a number of schools helping them review MCAS data and results. Thank you for shortening the turnaround time for MCAS results for schools, and for shortening the test periods.  Schools will greatly benefit from the increased analysis and planning window you have created.  However, the new policy regarding the release of only a partial set of questions greatly impacts the ability of teachers and schools to review those MCAS results in a meaningful way.

Having a report showing only strand information puts teachers at a big disadvantage. It is very difficult without the actual questions to see where students are having difficulty.  For example, the strand information does not indicate whether a math question is a whisker plot, a line graph, or a stem and leaf plot; students may have done well on one but not another.

ELA questions are even more problematic. The strand indicators are almost meaningless (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, etc.) because they don’t tie back to student skills, such as “finding evidence”, or “making inferences” about the passages.  When the questions and answers are released and provided to the teachers, these interpretations can be made easily; without the questions, it is almost not worth looking at the English MCAS results.  While it is not necessary to release all the reading passages, the questions and answers are fundamental to proper analysis.

Being able to see the question and answer content also allows teachers to see which answers the students indicated, showing the answer response patterns of their classes.  Many times students choose the same wrong answer, showing that they misunderstand a concept in the same way.  For example, in math when calculating an expression with absolute value operations and squaring, a number of students might calculate the square correctly, but not get the proper sign.  Again, without access to the questions, this type of inference is impossible.

Release of test items is critical for teachers to conduct a meaningful analysis, and to help their students make real progress.  While it may allow for shortening the test period, and perhaps save money in a time of state budget scarcity, it is a big step backward for MCAS.

I am sure you have considered other options, but I implore you to look more carefully.  I am confident there are a set schools that would allow future questions to be field tested, perhaps in an interim assessment in November.  Such an approach could provide a win-win situation.  Schools who participate in the interim assessment program would get better information about student progress before the spring exams, and the entire community would benefit from the release of the common test items from the March and May assessments.

I urge you to support schools and teachers by reversing the new policy that limits the release of test items.

Warm regards,

Mike Oates

mfoates@gmail.com