By Lisa Kashinsky

School superintendents in the Merrimack Valley reacted mostly favorably to the state's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education vote Tuesday to develop a "next-generation MCAS" that would combine elements of both MCAS and PARCC.

However, some superintendents expressed concern over the "aggressive timeline" that would see the new test administered for the first time in spring 2017.

"I think if it's rolled out in under two years it's going to be very difficult," Methuen Superintendent of Schools Judith Scannell said. "I think we need two years to really develop this test so it will be done correctly."

Still, Scannell said she is pleased with the decision overall.

"Neither test was perfect, so this might be the answer," she said.

What's in the hybrid?

After nearly two decades of using MCAS, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted 8-3 on Tuesday to transition to the hybrid based on the recommendations of Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester.

While the debate had centered for months on whether the state should stick to the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System or move to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, Chester's recommendation last week was to move forward with an assessment system that would combine elements of MCAS, PARCC, and other items specifically developed for Massachusetts.

Schools across the state have been piloting PARCC, designed by a consortium of states and aligned with Common Core standards, for two years.

Secretary of Education James A. Peyser said in a statement that the vote in favor of the hybrid test "gives our students, families and educators a better measure of student achievement while maintaining state control over our assessment system."

Haverhill Superintendent of Schools James Scully said he supports Chester's recommendations and the board's decision.

"There are sections of the MCAS that are not challenging enough, and at the same time, I don't know of anything today that you don't use technology on," he said.

North Andover Superintendent Jennifer Price said the hybrid is reflective of the direction the state had already been moving in with its standardized testing.

"I think that MCAS has really been incorporating more and more PARCC questions over the past few years. I've especially seen this from being a high school principal," Price said. "So I don't see this as being a major shift because MCAS has already been moving in that direction, to encourage critical thinking and go beyond the multiple choice questions."

Under the new plan, the state will award a new MCAS contract to include an assessment for English and math that will incorporate both PARCC items and items specific to Massachusetts. While moving away from fully implementing PARCC, the state will remain a member of the PARCC consortium to retain access to test development, cost-sharing and assessment comparisons with other states.

A group of educators and assessment experts will serve as advisers on the new tests. The tests would first be given in spring 2017, and administered on computers statewide by 2019.

Scannell said involving teachers would be an important element in designing the new tests.

"I believe this will give us a better grasp as to what students are learning within the curriculum and my hopes are that the teachers will be involved in the development of this new hybrid test, as they're the ones that are in the forefront daily with our students," Scannell said.

Next steps

School districts in the Merrimack Valley were somewhat split in which test they offered this past spring.

Lawrence, Methuen and North Andover remained with MCAS, while Andover and Haverhill administered PARCC. More than half of the districts statewide took the PARCC tests this year, according to state data.

Moving forward, districts that administered PARCC this past spring will do so again in 2016. Districts that administered MCAS will continue with that test unless they choose to administer PARCC.

Just as in 2015, districts that administer PARCC in spring 2016 will be held harmless for negative changes in school and district accountability levels. All districts will be held harmless when the new test takes over in 2017, the state said.

Both Price and Scannell said their districts will continue to administer MCAS next year. Price said North Andover won't change to a new test for just one year, while Scannell said Methuen's school and district improvement plans were built around MCAS data.

Haverhill will continue to administer PARCC, as per the guidelines, Scully said. Superintendents from Andover and Lawrence could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Price, however, worries that the spring 2017 target for implementation is aggressive.

"I think it will be difficult to meet the benchmarks of the timeline they have established," she said.

Scannell agreed.

"Anytime that I have seen anything that's rushed, the results are not the positives that we're looking for," she said.

The quick turnaround for the new exam could also place a strain on districts in terms of technology, she said, including the need for additional computers to accommodate all students for testing.

"Technology has been a huge part of our school district as we've moved forward," Scannell said. "But there are more pieces that have to be really put into our budget to meet the needs of this next round of testing."

Scully, however, praised the move toward technology-based testing.

"I think this testing program, using technology, will expedite the educators' ability to see where there may be deficits in what we are doing, or show deficits in the students' rate of learning," Scully said.

(c)2015 The Eagle-Tribune (North Andover, Mass.)