For University Park Campus School, the Massachusetts Switch from PARCC to MCAS 2.0 is Tom-ay-to, Tom-ah-to

12/03/2015 11:04 am ET Updated Dec 03, 2016

In which I continue my quest to find out what expert educators think about the new generation of assessments.

The folks at University Park Campus School in Worcester, Massachusetts, have a complicated relationship with state tests.

On the one hand, they don't pay all that much attention -- they have a mission to prepare every one of their students to enroll and be successful in college. They focus on instruction, not the tests. But, as Principal Dan St. Louis says, they would be "really unhappy" if they didn't double their proficiency rates between seventh and eighth grades and if just about all their 10th graders weren't proficient or above.

That's because state tests in many ways validate the work the school is doing and provide important information about what more needs to be done. "We take all feedback seriously," Principal St. Louis told me. "If we were not achieving high levels of proficient and advanced at 10th grade, we would [begin] doing some things differently."

Students at University Park typically enter seventh grade very behind, reading somewhere about the way a reasonably competent third-grader might. Their math is often even weaker. Quite a few are brand new to the country -- 66 percent do not have English as their first language. That is why the school acknowledges that many students will not be proficient in seventh grade. And yet, despite their slow start, by their senior year, just about all students graduate with college acceptances in hand, most to four-year colleges. In fact, many have already completed college classes.

Just as an example: This past spring, 96 percent of 10th-graders were proficient or above on the 10th-grade English Language Arts test; 51 percent advanced. In math, 85 percent were proficient or above; 54 advanced. This, with 64 percent of students identified as "high need." This puts the school ahead of the rest of the state, which is the highest performing state in the country.

Right from their first day, University Park makes a concerted effort to get students the help they need in early reading while engaging them in intellectual discussions about literature, history, and science. No matter how disengaged and resistant the students, teachers at University Park never give up on getting them to read deeply, write, analyze, and solve problems.

I stopped by the school for a short time a couple of weeks ago and in a very short time I saw:

  • Eighth-graders leave on a field trip to hike up a nearby mountain;
  • A freshman, after his teacher introduced a new unit on the Industrial Revolution, ask, "Was the Industrial Revolution as bloody as the French Revolution?"
  • Sophomores discuss the correlation between the Stanford prison experiment and Lord of the Flies;
  • Juniors discuss the Spanish-American war in the context of American imperialism; and
  • Seniors discuss the pros and cons of nuclear power.

One senior who said he really isn't interested in academic work told me, "Just by coming here, it makes you more intelligent."

University Park, in other words, is aiming much higher than simply scoring well on state tests, and the folks there spend very little time specifically preparing for them.

But that doesn't mean they ignore the results. Like other high-performing schools, they look at the results to help them see more clearly what they are doing and what more they need to do.

Which is why I thought they would be frustrated by the state's decision to abandon the new PARCC assessment in favor of developing MCAS 2.0, so named because it will be the next generation of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, which was put in place in the 1990s as part of the state's improvement efforts.

Each new test has its own idiosyncrasies, and PARCC required educators all over Massachusetts -- and the other states in the PARCC consortium -- to learn new testing protocols and new ways of thinking about assessment. University Park gave PARCC to its seventh- and eighth-graders in the spring, and that required a lot of work.

But, St. Louis said, "As long as we're learning and getting students to read, write, analyze, and solve problems," he's not really worried about whatever test they have to take. And he has confidence that Massachusetts will continue to have high-quality assessments no matter what they're called.

"MCAS 2.0 will still be in line with what University Park has been doing for 17 years," he said.

To read more about University Park, see It's Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2007) and click here.