How Massachusetts Promoted Achievement Before Common Core & PARCC

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Before the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) officially decides to adopt PARCC’s testing system in place of the testing system that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) developed in the 1990s and early 2000s, local school committees, state legislators, and parents should be able to peruse the test items used in the tests given to all public school students in the Bay State as part of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS).  The major purpose of this blog is to give them access to the test items used in MCAS tests at all grade levels and for all subjects tested, from 1998 on.

These test items are public information because the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 (MERA) required all used test items to be released annually. DESE used to compile a report every spring containing all used state test items, distribute this report to the schools in September, and post these annual reports on its website. It no longer does so and will not be able to do so if BESE adopts PARCC. It is not clear how parents, state legislators, and local school boards will be able to understand changes in the K-12 curriculum without access to the full array of test items that will hold teachers accountable for student scores on PARCC.  But, at the least, they can see the test items that promoted achievement in all student groups before Common Core and PARCC. For a view of all “practice test” items PARCC made available for public inspection in mathematics and English language arts for the 2015 PARCC tests, see

The first MCAS tests were given in 1998.  They were based on the standards for science and mathematics approved by the Martin Kaplan-chaired board in December 1995, on the English language arts standards approved in December 1996 by the John Silber-chaired board, and on the history/social science standards approved by the John Silber-chaired board in mid-1997.  Tests had not yet been developed for the other subjects mandated for assessment by MERA (health, foreign/world languages, and the performing arts), and in 2015 still haven’t.

Every spring from 1998 on, DESE prepared a document showing all test items used in the previous year.  No direct links to these documents can be located on the DESE website any more.  The following links, located on other websites, will open up these DESE documents prepared by DESE to address the statute in MERA requiring annual release of all used MCAS test items. The first one is titled The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System: Release of May 1998 Test Items.  It shows all common test items (and answers) for the three subjects tested in 1998.

The second is titled The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System: Release of Spring 1999 Test Items.  It shows all common test items (and answers) for the four subjects tested in 1999.

The third is titled The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System: Release of Spring 2000 Test Items.  It shows all common test items (and answers) for the four subjects tested in 2000.

For each grade level test, these documents indicate the date of the standards on which the test items for that year were based.  After 2000, MCAS tests were based on the revised standards for all four subjects as soon as the revised curriculum framework for the subject was approved. Revised standards in mathematics, science and technology, English language arts, and history/social science were approved under James Peyser, now Secretary of Education under Governor Charles Baker, while he served as BESE chair (from 1999 to 2005).  Governor Charles Baker was a member of BESE from 2000 to 2007. It should also be noted that an annual reading test in grade 3 began in 2001, and that by 2006, DESE was providing a summary page showing “reporting categories, standards, and correct answers” (e.g., 2006, grade 8, p. 345) after showing all test items used at a grade level.

The links for the documents annually released by DESE from 2001 to 2007 are as follows:







2007 or this version

After 2007, DESE announced it would no longer release all used test items annually.[1]  It would release only about half of them, because of cost (it explained) and to shorten the testing periods themselves.  The document containing used test items continued to be prepared by DESE each spring, and released to the schools after 2007 (to address MERA). But test items for only some grades in some subjects can be located via Google. And they can be located only because grade-level groups of test items were downloaded, scanned, and posted on the Internet by individuals, schools, or entrepreneurs, such as the URLs below. More can be located; it just takes time.

Grade 10 mathematics


grade 8 mathematics, 2009, 17 items here

Grade 10 ELA

Grade 10 mathematics 2011, 42 test items here

Grade 10, 2014 MCAS

Grade 10, 2013, MCAS, ELA

Grade 10 2014 MCAS ELA

[1]  The 2015 MBAE report also indicated that one feature of MCAS was: “Releasing all items on all tests each year for the first nine years of the program, and continuing to release half of items in subsequent years” (p. 4).


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