Chester pulls back from PARCC
State education commissioner says “MCAS 2.0” is the way to go
MCAS or PARCC?
“None of the above” now looks like the correct answer to that test question.
What looked like an either-or choice between retaining the state’s MCAS exam or scrapping it in favor of the new Common Core-aligned PARCC test has taken an unexpected turn and landed on a compromise plan to develop a revamped state test being billed “MCAS 2.0,” which would include a lot of content from the PARCC test.
State Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester made it clear on Tuesday that he won’t recommend formal adoption of the PARCC test, developed by a multistate consortium of education leaders, but will instead seek to have the state retain control of the standardized test it administers to public school students while at the same time drawing from the new PARCC test to upgrade MCAS.
“The big question in my mind is, how can we take advantage of the best of what’s been developed in the consortium but still have the running room to make sure that the test that we end up with meets our requirements,” Chester told reporters Tuesday afternoon following a meeting of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“It’s not a binary decision. This is the point that I’ve come to – either PARCC or MCAS,” said Chester. “It’s got to be a next generation assessment for the Commonwealth, a next generation MCAS. The question in my mind is, to what extent can we take advantage of the development that’s been done with PARCC to take us down that road.”
The move to dump PARCC is a big setback for Chester, who had pushed to bring the new test to Massachusetts, and a victory for the Pioneer Institute, the Boston think tank that has been the leading critic of PARCC and advocate for retaining MCAS.
“We’ve always been for keeping MCAS and making it an even better test,” said Jim Stergios, Pioneer’s executive director. “So, we are all for an MCAS 2.0, but that means MCAS should be the starting point not PARCC.”
The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, which has strongly backed PARCC, expressed disappointment in the developments. “MBAE is very concerned that MCAS 2.0 is a Band-Aid approach and not a real solution,” said Linda Noonan, the group’s executive director. She said there seems to be agreement that the current MCAS needs to be replaced, and she worried that a revamped test that draws heavily from PARCC could end up being more costly to the state than just adopting PARCC outright.
MCAS was developed as part of the state’s landmark 1993 education reform law, and includes English, math, and science tests for students starting in third grade. It culminates in a “high-stakes” 10th grade math and English exam that students must pass to graduate from high school.
In 2010, Massachusetts adopted the Common Core state standards, a set of new academic benchmarks ultimately put in place by more than 40 states. Two big consortia of states have, since that time, joined together to develop new assessments based on the Common Core.
PARCC, which has more types of writing questions than MCAS and asks students to show more of their reasoning in the math, was touted to be a better gauge of college readiness. But a study released last week showed that it was no better than MCAS in predicting freshman-year performance in Massachusetts public colleges.
Chester first raised the idea of a compromise solution at a meeting on Monday afternoon of the state education board.
The new tack represents a jarring turn of events in the run-up to the board’s November meeting, when it was expected that the 11 members would be voting on whether to keep MCAS or switch to PARCC, which stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. Chester serves as chairman of the PARCC governing board, making him something of a national spokesman for the test. Most observers were expecting that he would recommend that Massachusetts adopt the test.
Chester said today that he still views PARCC as a superior assessment to MCAS. He said MCAS has “outlived its usefulness” and that “there’s no question that PARCC has set a higher standard for student performance” in requiring more reasoning and critical thinking from students.
Chester said the issue is not the test content, but governance, since signing on to PARCC would lock the state into a testing system in which decisions about the content of the exams would be made by the PARCC consortium, not state officials.
“We need to preserve our autonomy in terms of making decisions about our testing program going forward,” he said.
That marks a sharp change of view for Chester, who had not previously voiced such concerns. His new posture puts him in line with Gov. Charlie Baker, who has expressed reservations from the start of the PARCC process about ceding control over the test administered to Massachusetts students.
Education policy in the state has become a delicate dance since Baker took office. Chester, who oversees the state’s K-12 system, is not appointed by the governor, but hired by the 11-member state education board. Its members are appointed by the governor, but they serve staggered terms and the majority of the board is still made up of members appointed by former governor Deval Patrick. Chester was appointed commissioner during Patrick’s first term, in 2008.
Baker’s education secretary, Jim Peyser, speaking to reporters today alongside Chester, offered support for the new approach.
“I think in some ways it provides an opportunity to have the best of both worlds,” said Peyser, “where we have control over our own destiny, we make decisions that are right and best for Massachusetts, while taking advantage of all the work that’s been done, and not just by PARCC, but by Massachusetts educators in helping and working with other educators around the country in developing PARCC.”
Peyser echoed Chester’s comments about the quality of the PARCC assessment itself. “There’s a lot of quality test items within the PARCC item bank,” he said. “I would expect us drawing heavily from them, and really our work in thinking about MCAS 2.0 is, how do we modify and build on that.”
Peyser said in a later interview that the idea of a third approach to the testing decision was not apparent to state leaders several months ago. He said it emerged in the wake of developments such as those in Louisiana, which has dropped the PARCC test but is developing its own state exam that draws heavily off the PARCC assessment.
Under a similar approach, Peyser said, Massachusetts might deal with PARCC more as a vendor, purchasing test questions to use in a retooled MCAS exam, as opposed to buying a complete assessment to be administered, as is, to students.
Chester said it’s not clear how a revamped MCAS would differ from PARCC.
Also now very much up in the air is what assessment Massachusetts students will be given in the next round of state testing, in the spring of 2016. About half the state’s students took PARCC last spring as part of a tryout of the new assessment, while half took MCAS.
Peyser said retaining state control over the test would not only give Massachusetts leeway in crafting the assessment given to students, but would also allow for more flexibility in making changes to the underlying Common Core curriculum standards that the state test must be aligned with. The PARCC test was developed directly from the Common Core standards, so using it would not allow the state the same freedom over the curriculum standards that schools use.
Pioneer Institute has been the leading voice nationally against Common Core, and Stergios said the flexibility to veer from those standards is crucial. Having a “high quality test,” he said, “will also require raising the standards beyond the Common Core that PARCC was designed to test.”
A grass-roots group is gathering signatures to place a question on the 2016 state ballot that would repeal Common Core standards in Massachusetts.
The new testing idea is still a long way from being a fully-crafted proposal to put before the state education board. Several board members expressed surprise at Monday’s and Tuesday’s meetings over the emergence of a third option, and members seem likely to have lots of questions for Chester about how such a plan would work before the November 17 meeting when they are scheduled to make a decision.
Peyser said in an interview last week that he was hoping state education leaders could “come to some consensus” on a testing recommendation in advance of the November meeting, and he and Chester appear to have done just that.
Though the plan now being proposed lines up much more closely with the administration’s view, Peyser said there was no ultimatum given to Chester telling him that Peyser and Baker would not support adoption of the PARCC test. Instead, Peyser said, the idea developed during ongoing conversations with Chester and the chairman of the education board, Paul Sagan.“The commissioner, the chairman, and I were in regular conversation over the last month, and even longer,” said Peyser. “And we just together came to this conclusion. All of us were trying to figure out if there was some way to have our cake and eat it too.”