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New Tool to Prep for MCAS

Ohanian Comment:The system allows a district to immediately know what students have accomplished and what teachers should focus on. Here is the admission that the curriculum is devoted to test prep. And test vaults for lower grades are coming.

Between 1998 and 2004, Massachusetts 10th-graders answered about 1,000 MCAS questions.

Denise Page knows this because she typed each one of them into a computer last summer, by herself. It took about 300 hours.

''It was a lot of late nights," said Page, an instructional technology and health teacher at Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School inHaverhill.

Page's work helped her secure a certificate of advanced graduate studies from Fitchburg State. It also became computer software that has been a staple of Whittier's MCAS preparation for the past year.

The software has drawn interest from other school systems as they try to help students prepare for the 10th-grade exam, which has been a graduation requirement since 2003.

School administrators from Barnstable, Lowell, and Marlborough have contacted Page about the software, which will be available for purchase June 1.

''It's really now in the packaging stage," Page said.

For Page's final graduate studies project, she created a system that would allow teachers to access old MCAS questions for the lesson they are teaching.

It's what her own district needed, she said. The state had put Whittier on its list of schools to watch, partly because of its low MCAS scores. Page said teachers needed a way to figure out which MCAS questions were preventing students from passing, and a way to ensure that students had mastered a lesson before moving to the next.

By typing out each question from 10th-grade exams, Page created Test Vault, a computer software program that is essentially an organized bank of old exam questions.

Whittier has teamed up with RISO Products of Boston, a company that has created a grading machine and test software. Teachers may now score the Test Vault questions so they can immediately see which items caused problems for students and which sections of the test need to be reviewed in class.

''We've always used actual MCAS questions," Page said of how teachers prepare students for MCAS tests. ''But the process was, 'Let's flip through 1,000 pages of test looking for the right question.' "

Katrina Jensen, a math teacher at the Haverhill vocational school, said she has depended on the Test Vault program and the RISO testing machine throughout the year. She teaches 10th-graders, so she has spent much of the year using the Test Vault questions to give students a taste of what they will see on next month's MCAS exam.

Jensen said there are other programs and books available for teachers, such as MCAS preparation materials from the testing company Kaplan, but only Page's program uses actual questions from the MCAS exam.

''They break it up into their own units," Jensen said of Kaplan. ''She has put everything all together."

Since Whittier began using Page's software, school districts around the state have taken interest. Barnstable administrators visited Whittier to see Test Vault and RISO's scoring equipment, as did Assabet Valley Regional Vocational School District in Marlborough. Greater Lowell Technical High School is scheduled to visit next week.

Several school districts said the Test Vault program and the RISO testing system were recommended by the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability, a state department created in 2002 to audit and examine school districts.

Marilyn Nouri, an administrator in Barnstable, said she visited Whittier after its program was recommended by Joe Rappa, who runs the Office of Educational Quality. She said what was most impressive at Whittier was the RISO system, which allows a district to immediately know what students have accomplished and what teachers should focus on.

''I think what was kind of impressive was how quickly the test could be graded and the turnaround time and the data presentation of how class as a whole did," she said.

Nouri said that for Barnstable, the issue is cost. Test Vault will most likely cost between $1,000 and $4,000, which is on par with similar educational software used by school systems. RISO's software and machinery can run to $38,000 for single school installation. Whittier received free staff support from RISO for testing software, but paid for the machine.

Rappa said he doesn't necessarily endorse Test Vault or RISO. What he has recommended to schools is the approach Whittier is using. His office, which monitors educational quality, has urged school systems to collect test data to catch troublesome trends and monitor progress. He said he was impressed that Whittier has been able to quickly pinpoint problems and successes with its system.

''They're doing this in a way that teachers get some real-time feedback," he said.

Rappa acknowledged that for some districts, buying a $38,000 machine may seem a misuse of money. But he said investing in a similar system may be necessary, and can ensure that teachers are accomplishing the maximum.

''I think the question is, if they don't do it, what are they risking?" he said of districts that choose not to find a testing and grading system that provides data analysis. ''We basically are not just asking people to be busy, we're asking people to be effective."

Gene Carlo, Assabet superintendent, said he plans to purchase the RISO equipment and the Test Vault program despite the cost.

Carlo said the state has increased requirements for data collecting to show improvement and school district weaknesses. He said that although the RISO system is expensive, it is less than adding a staff person, which would be required in order to keep track of testing information.

''You have to say to yourself, what's the price of not having it? It does all the analytical data we need."

Whittier Superintendent Karen Sarkisian said the software and RISO equipment have helped her school teach the test more effectively. While educators once balked at the idea of ''teaching to the test," Sarkisian said it's now accepted that MCAS exams guide lesson plans.

''You have to," Sarkisian said of teaching to the test. ''It falls under No Child Left Behind.' "

Seeing this need, and an interest in preparing students in lower grades for the exam, Page already has started to type questions from past MCAS exams for lower grades. She expects to make Test Vaults for younger students available soon.

But this time, Page said, she isn't the only one typing in hundreds of questions.

''This time, I'm getting help."

Meredith Goldstein can be reached at mgoldstein@globe.com

— Meredith Goldstein
Boston Globe


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