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Poetry and the MCAS: Last Minute Tips

Have a strategy for answering the questions.

By Joan Reissman, MCAS Maven

Poetry questions on MCAS can be very difficult for students. Past years’ results for poetry are varied. Students seem to do better with a contemporary poem. For example, in 2018 students were tested on a contemporary poem about a young man who had been jailed and how he used that experience to move his life in a positive direction. Students responded well to this poem and their success in answering the questions verified that: the average score was 89%. In 2017, however, students had to compare T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock” to an excerpt from the novel “The Fault in Our Stars.” The average on these questions was 67% If the poetry excerpt on the practice test is any indication, students will be answering questions on a challenging poem this year. The practice test features the only selection without a comparison between two texts. The poem is an excerpt from “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” a medieval poem interpreted and translated in the 19th century. The poem is generally considered a meditation on carpe diem (seize the day), a theme that might seem irrelevant to some students.

Strategies for MCAS Next Gen ELA
MCAS Next Gen 2.0 ELA – Expect greater emphasis on text comparison.

by Joan Reissman, MCAS Maven

The biggest change in the MCAS Next Gen 2.0 ELA test, coming to 10th grade next month, is a greater emphasis on text comparison. Although people read every day, much of the reading students do on the phone or computer is recreational. Nobody is going to quiz you on detailed comprehension after you read something on social media. There is ongoing debate over whether students comprehend better on paper or screen. But it’s academic to us, because Next Gen MCAS is coming on a screen.

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MCAS Prep

Meet the new MCAS with confidence and success

by Eileen Wedegartner, Blended Learning Specialist

I started teaching in 1998. My first year I filled in for a teacher in a Boston exurb. The school was my alma mater, so English department staff took me under their wings to help me do the best one could hope for a first-year teacher. They gave me lesson plans, coached me on practice and helped me develop some good curriculum. By all measures, I had a great year in my first year of teaching.

New twists and how not to get tangled up

by Joan Reissman, Blended Learning Specialist

There has been a lot of discussion about the new MCAS 2.0 test. Parents and teachers are wondering how they can help students build the skills they need to succeed. The biggest difference is that the test will no longer be on paper. It’s online. Although students use technology every day, that doesn’t mean they will automatically know how to navigate the test. The first step in preparation is to make sure that students understand how to navigate through the test and answer all questions.

Improving Performance on MCAS Math

On MCAS, every point counts.

by Joan Reissman, Blended Learning Specialist

Although ELA has barely ended, MCAS math will be here before you know it on May 23 and 24 for high schools.

It seems obvious that the math formula page is there to help students, but few students really use it. Many questions, including open response items, are easy to solve if they just check their formulas. For example, the 2017 10th grade test had six questions that relied heavily on geometric formulas. There is almost always an open response question derived straight from the formula page. One of the best ways to show students the value of the formula page is to do one of these open response questions in class. And don’t forget the handy tool on the DESE website mentioned in my previous blog— the student work/scoring guides section. You’ll find it very useful for practicing open response.

Last- minute quick tips for the MCAS ELA open response

Simple techniques to improve performance

by Joan Reissman, Blended Learning Specialist
Many students lose points on the ELA open response questions. We know that some students don’t like to write. But even so, we can improve their performance with some simple techniques.

The 2017 average on ELA multiple choice questions was 80%. Yet the average on open response questions was only 68%. The discrepancy is not due to test position: students did best on the first and last questions of the four open response questions (Reading Comprehension section). So how can we help students score at least a 2 or 3 on open responses?

by Joan Reissman, Blended Learning Specialist

by Joan Reissman, Blended Learning Specialist

The new MCAS 2.0 tests for 10th grade will not be in place until the spring of 2019, but preview tests will be administered this spring. All Massachusetts high schools will be randomly assigned either ELA or math and they are expected to have at least 25% of their students participate. The preview testing window for 10th grade will be between the regular English and math MCAS tests, from April 23 through May 11.

Madison Park MCAS Gain Leads State

The largest Proficient/Advanced gain in the state

by Gary Kaplan, JFYNetWorks Executive Director

MCAS scores for 2017 were released last month. JFY’s partner schools logged many good results, but Madison Park Technical Vocational High School was far and away the year’s high point.

Madison Park has come in for heavy criticism for many years. Every news story about school problems cites it as one of the lowest performing schools in the state. There is justification for concern: scores have historically been low and the school was demoted to Level 4 in 2015. In our skill-hungry labor market, it makes sense to be concerned: how can we support a burgeoning tech-based economy if Boston’s only vocational school can’t produce skilled workers?

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    JFYNetWorks Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) Preparation

    MCAS is the statewide testing structure adopted in 1998. High school testing occurs only in the 10th grade. There are three MCAS tests: English Language Arts, math, and science/technology/engineering. JFYNet focuses on ELA. A new testing system, PARCC, is expected to replace MCAS at some point. PARCC is being piloted in the lower grades and in selected high schools. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has announced that MCAS will continue to be the high school graduation standard for the next several years.

    The JFYNetWorks MCAS Preparation program is designed to help 9th and 10th grade students reach Common Core-aligned standards with the goal of on-time grade progression and ultimately successful graduation from high school and success in college.

    We measure our success by improved MCAS scores, teacher and administrator satisfaction surveys, and testimonies and stories from students and teachers about the impact of the program on their lives.

    Learn more about JFYNet’s methodology.


    JFYNetWorks offers a complete MCAS 2.0 prep curriculum including practice tests and test-taking strategies for math and ELA. We’ve been providing blended MCAS prep programs to schools since 2000. Our focus is on standards-based instruction. We raise test scores by building students’ skills.

    Our blended learning academic support programs have a long history of documented student gains. We’d be glad to discuss them with you on the phone or come and present a demo. Please shoot us an email or give us a call.

    JFY Accuplacer prep College Readiness
    JFY Accuplacer prep College Readiness

    How to explain bad behavior to students

    How to explain bad behavior to students

    by Greg Cunningham, Blended Learning Specialist

    These are difficult times for teachers. With MCAS looming, budgets due (and most likely cut from last year), and antsy students counting the hours to year-end, teachers have a small mountain of things on their plate. Add the storm of controversies in pop culture (which students pay more attention to than Algebra) and the classroom can be a complex and complicated storm center. Students who grew up listening to R. Kelly are going to have many questions even before getting to the recent revelations about Michael Jackson. And now English teachers have to confront the news that Charles Dickens tried to have his wife committed to an insane asylum so he could be with another woman. (Divorce was apparently too much trouble.) Throw in John Wayne’s recently rediscovered racist rants and Joe Biden’s hair fetish and your head spins like a scene from The Exorcist.

    How we teachers process all this information is important, as it affects how our students will process it. It would be easy to dismiss some of these controversies as time period issues, much as history teachers explain Thomas Jefferson’s slave holdings. But that is no solution. The troubling behavior of pop icons is disturbing to young people. They may turn to adults for answers. We’d better have some handy.

    Writers, statesmen, philosophers and artists have always been known to behave abnormally. Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear; Socrates committed suicide after being found guilty of “not recognizing the gods recognized by the state”; William Shakespeare and George Washington may have had affairs while away from home; John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton may have had them while at home in the White House; Edgar Allen Poe married his 12 year-old cousin, and Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13 year-old cousin. And yet, none of these “character flaws” disqualify the works and contributions of the characters themselves. No one changes the oldies station when Great Balls of Fire comes on, nor is anyone ripping up the Declaration of Independence because Jefferson owned slaves.

    Is it simply the passage of time that permits us to see the works and not the person? Was it easier in the days before Twitter? (Wasn’t everything easier without Twitter!) Why do we teach the “eccentricities” of Poe and not condemn his alcoholism and opium addiction and what today would be considered child endangerment? (Never mind that she was his cousin.)

    The barrage of recent eruptions called up a vivid memory from my junior year of high school. I was taking a modified philosophy class in which we had spent much of the year on the writings and teachings of Lawrence Kohlberg, a mid-century psychiatrist/philosopher who developed a six-stage theory of moral development based on Jean Piaget.

    In Kohlberg’s third stage, an adolescent, and possibly an adult, realizes what societal norms are and wishes to act within those norms so as not to stand out negatively within the community. By stage six, a person’s acts are motivated not by fear of punishment, but by the realization of what is right and the desire to act accordingly. (OK, not everyone makes it to stage 6.) What makes Kohlberg’s theory stand out is that it takes into account different cultures and the changing of societal norms. As society changes, so does the development of individual morals. In other words, the development of morality is not static; it changes in the same way society changes over time.

    Why is this important? Partly because it proposes that society can change, norms can change, and people can develop the sense of morality at different rates. But there is another, more important, reason that Kohlberg’s teachings came to mind.

    In the middle of our term, Kohlberg committed suicide. When the news hit the papers (this was pre-Twitter), my classmates and I, ever searching for a chink in the armor of moral development, pounced on our hapless teacher. How, we demanded, could we credit the theories of a psychologist who was so irrational as to take his own life?

    The teacher’s response was measured and probably meant as much for himself as for us. Just because a person had a side that was unbalanced or even immoral, he said, it did not necessarily discredit achievements that society had deemed worthy and valuable. He cited historical figures like Socrates and van Gogh whose actions were questionable but whose works are still revered. If we can separate the work from the behavior in regard to historical figures, he argued, we should make the same distinction for modern thinkers, artists or philosophers who may have exhibited questionable or even immoral behavior. Separate the work from the person, he urged.

    This is what we have been doing with Poe in English classrooms for years. We dismiss his behaviors as the quirks or aberrations of genius rather than the crimes of an opium-addicted child molester who married his 12- year-old cousin when he was 27. We excuse his behavior because the writings he created are too worthy of study to dismiss. We will undoubtedly do the same with Dickens despite the new revelations of his disturbing behavior.

    Still, for students and many adults, this separation of person from work is extremely difficult. The long lens of history creates separation from the individual and a sort of statute of limitations: times were different; they didn’t know any better. This statute may apply to Jefferson, Poe or even Wayne, but it can’t be invoked for Michael Jackson or R. Kelly. Yet in the recent documentary Leaving Neverland, one of Jackson’s victims states that Michael was a gifted and wonderfully creative performer, and he would never want to take anything away from that, even though he was victimized by behavior that left him shaken and scarred.

    Time will be the judge for these artists. For now, at least for me, it is possible to separate the works from the troubling actions. It is legitimate to enjoy the music now if you enjoyed it before you knew these disturbing facts. Just as with musicians, writers, philosophers and artists of earlier times who are still admired and taught today, the works of our current fallen idols exist apart from the flawed persons who made them. Radio stations may boycott Kelly or Jackson, or Jerry Lee, but they all remain on my playlist.

    And will I forsake Poe because of his offenses against decency? In a word, “Nevermore.”


    Related posts: Words and Meanings, The teachers’ job and Language and Liability in a Sensitive Time. Words Matter! Definitions & Intent Matter!