State faces testing showdown
Whether to scrap MCAS in favor of the new PARCC assessment comes loaded with lots of other questions
Photographs by Kathleen Dooher
IN 2010, WHEN the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to adopt the Common Core State Standards, it marked a big moment for the effort to get states to sign on to a common set of academic benchmarks for public school students.
The existing Massachusetts standards were widely regarded as among the strongest in the country, and Bay State students placed first in the country on achievement measures in math and English. Having the state agree to the newly-crafted Common Core standards represented a crucial seal of approval.
“Supporters of the Common Core were very interested in getting Massachusetts to come on board,” says Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based education policy think tank. Because the state’s standards were rated so highly, he says, the thinking on Common Core was, “if leaders of Massachusetts said these standards were even better, that would be a real coup and a signal to other states.”
In November, the state education board will vote on whether the state should trade MCAS for the new PARCC test that is aligned with the Common Core standards. It will be another signal that registers loudly in the national education debate.
Is PARCC a better overall assessment of achievement and does it provide better information on how prepared students are for college or career-training programs?
Those may be the main questions the state board is wrestling with. But the PARCC debate comes freighted with much more.
Swirling in the mix is criticism that the Common Core standards, strongly backed by the Obama administration, represent an unwarranted federal intrusion into local education policy. There has also been resentment of the heavy-handed influence of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has spent millions of dollars backing the Common Core effort.
Fanning the flames at the margins have been right-wing ranters like Glenn Beck, joined occasionally by a few on the left, claiming the whole enterprise represents a takeover of education by shadowy corporate elites set on molding today’s children into a servile worker class of tomorrow.
“The public has lots of misinformation and misperceptions about what Common Core does or doesn’t do,” says Patrick McGuinn, a political scientist at Drew University who specializes in education policy. “A lot of the debate is not about the substance of Common Core and the standards themselves. It’s about other issues that have gotten connected to Common Core and to tests like PARCC.”
That said, there are legitimate questions about PARCC and Common Core, especially in Massachusetts, where it was not as clear that the new standards represented the leap forward that they clearly bring to many other states.
A grassroots campaign is working to put a question on the 2016 state ballot that would repeal Common Core and go back to the previous Massachusetts standards.
Common Core has become the education bogeyman of the Republican presidential campaign, with candidates Chris Christie and Bobby Jindal, who once embraced the standards, sprinting to catch up with their primary rivals in denouncing Common Core as a dangerous federal overreach into schools.
The number of states now signed on to use the PARCC test “is reaching a dangerously low level,” says Tom Loveless, an education policy expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Massachusetts is a high profile state when it comes to Common Core, and if it withdrew from PARCC, I think that would be a serious blow.”
PARCC TEST DRIVE
The Common Core standards were developed by a bipartisan group of governors through the National Governors Association and a national organization of state education commissioners. The two groups were concerned about the uneven rigor of standards across the 50 states and the fact that far too many students seem unprepared for the demands of college and the work world in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.
Many states had weak standards. And they had widely varying definitions of “proficiency,” with the bar set far lower in some states than any honest reckoning would ever arrive at.
The Massachusetts curriculum standards, which were developed following passage of the state’s landmark education reform law in 1993, were viewed as among the strongest of any state. They are credited with helping the state rise to the top spot among all states in math and in English on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test often termed “the nation’s report card.”
The Massachusetts standards were due for updating and committees of educators were working on those revisions at the same time that the Common Core effort was getting underway in 2008. Massachusetts education officials redirected the state standards review with an eye toward adopting the new Common Core standards, which the state ultimately did in July 2010.
As Massachusetts and other states were weighing the Common Core decision, the Fordham Institute issued a report comparing the Common Core standards to those in all 50 states. Unlike with most of states, where their analysis suggested Common Core was an unequivocal improvement, Fordham said the case for Massachusetts was much less clear. Fordham deemed the decision “too close to call,” giving the Massachusetts English standards a slightly higher grade than Common Core, while saying the Common Core standards for math were slightly stronger than the existing state benchmarks.
“My own view was Massachusetts couldn’t have made a wrong decision,” says Petrilli, the Fordham president. “It chose to go ahead [and adopt Common Core]. Of course that has been controversial, and some of our friends there in Massachusetts continue to dispute the wisdom of that.”
The “friends” Petrilli refers to are the staff at the Pioneer Institute. The conservative-leaning Boston think tank has emerged as the strongest policy and advocacy voice in the country against Common Core — and often a shiv-wielding critic of Fordham and other organizations that have endorsed the new standards.
Pioneer has issued lengthy reports critiquing the standards and its leaders have barnstormed the state — and country — speaking out on the issue. The group has faulted everything from the standards’ focus on nonfiction reading over traditional literature to the rigor of Common Core math, which Pioneer says pulls up short of what students need to pursue math-rich college majors.
Pioneer and others have also criticized the strong hand of the Obama administration in prodding states to adopt the standards. Although Common Core was a state-led effort of governors and state school leaders, the Obama administration has pushed the effort on multiple fronts, including through grants to the developers of the Common Core tests.
In 2009, the administration dangled the prospect of money from the $4.3 billion Race to the Top school grant project to states that adopted rigorous new “college and career ready” standards, a clear reference to Common Core.
The Obama administration viewed Massachusetts as a prize catch in the bid to get states to join Common Core. The Patrick administration wound up a Race to the Top winner, getting $250 million in funds from the initiative, and pushed for the state’s adoption of Common Core.
“There were a lot of politics involved,” says Loveless, the Brookings Institution education expert. “The Democratic governor did not want to upset the apple cart when it came to Common Core in those early days,” he says of then-Gov. Deval Patrick.
The next step was development of new tests based on the Common Core standards. Two big consortia of states have collaborated in these efforts. Massachusetts joined with states crafting the PARCC test. Pearson, the world’s largest education publishing company, was contracted to develop the assessment and the computer platform to administer it.
Massachusetts embarked on what state officials called a two-year “test drive” of PARCC, which stands for Partnership for Readiness for College and Careers. Some 81,000 students were given the test in 2014, and a bigger tryout was conducted in 2015, with about half of all districts in the state volunteering to give PARCC to students in grades 3-8 in place of MCAS. (Regardless of the ultimate PARCC decision, the state plans to continue using the 10th grade MCAS test, which students must pass to graduate from high school, at least through the class of 2019.)
PARCC established a “meeting expectations” scoring benchmark that test officials believe signals that students are on track to be “college- and career-ready” by the time they graduate.
In September, the state released PARCC results from the schools that gave the test online last spring. (About 40 percent of schools used a paper-and-pencil version of the test.) Fewer Massachusetts students taking PARCC met the test’s meeting expectations standard than met the MCAS proficiency standard in schools that gave the state test.
For sixth-grade students, for example, proficiency rates for those taking MCAS were 71 percent for English language arts and 62 percent for math. For PARCC, 54 percent of sixth graders taking the new test reached the “meeting expectations” level for English and 49 percent did so for math.
PARCC proponents say the lower scores are not surprising, as the test was designed to provide a more honest appraisal of student achievement than most existing state tests. But it’s not possible on that basis alone to say PARCC offers a more rigorous assessment of critical thinking and reasoning than MCAS, since the results only reflect the cutpoints used by the two tests to mark a minimally adequate score.
Common Core proponents say the standards bring a new level of rigor to schooling and demand from students more of the critical thinking skills they will need to succeed in college and the work world.
Standards don’t prescribe a detailed curriculum. They describe a set of skills students should master and content they should be exposed to as they progress through the K-12 system.
The Common Core authors say the standards are aimed at having students ready to do credit-bearing college work by the time they graduate from high school. That has become an important goal in US schools because many students, even in states like Massachusetts that have high standards and high achievement, still graduate from high school without the skills needed for higher education.
About one-third of Massachusetts public high school graduates who enroll in a state college or university have to take at least one remedial, non-credit bearing course based on placement exams used by the schools. For those enrolling at two-year community colleges, the figure is 55 percent.
“We know that MCAS has not served as a good gauge of college readiness,” says Linda Noonan, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, which was involved in the 1993 education reform effort and supports Common Core and a switch to the new PARCC exam. The group released a report in February that concluded that MCAS fails to identify students who are college- and career-ready and lacks the right content to do so. It offered a “cautious and conditional ‘yes’” to the question of whether PARCC delivers on those goals, acknowledging that the new exams are, at this early stage, promising but unproven.
While supporters say Common Core will bring all participating states up to a high bar that prepares students for college, Pioneer Institute maintains they are a bad deal for Massachusetts. “My best guess is that Common Core is probably better than the standards in about 20 states,” says Jim Stergios, Pioneer’s executive director. In perhaps another dozen states, he says, “it’s a mixed bag.” But for those those states that had very strong standards — he puts Massachusetts at the top of this list — Stergios says Common Core is “a real step down.”
In English, Pioneer has been particularly critical of Common Core’s call for students to read more nonfiction, or “informational text.” Authors of the standards say students are arriving at college without the skills needed to understand and analyze complex “informational” nonfiction that makes up the bulk of what they’re asked to read in college — in science courses, history, or psychology — and in the work world afterwards.
Stergios says Common Core is wrong about what it takes to educate students to be sophisticated readers in college. “The acquisition of vocabulary, the understanding of meaning and nuance, understanding what’s sarcastic, what’s irony, what’s true and what’s not true — that all comes from literature. It does not come from vacuuming information from a nonfiction text,” he says.
The Common Core standards say there should be a 50-50 split between fiction and nonfiction reading in the early grades, a breakdown that should move to 70-30 in favor of nonfiction reading by high school.
Pioneer officials have lashed out at the reading standards, penning newspaper op-eds claiming that the standards cut classic fiction reading in Massachusetts schools by 60 percent.
But the standards don’t actually call for such reduction. Common Core says the breakdown between fiction and nonfiction applies to reading done across the entire range of the school curriculum, not just in English classes. For high school students, that means the goal of 70 percent of reading being nonfiction includes assignments in history and social studies classes as well as in science courses.
“We have not abandoned literature, we have not abandoned poetry,” says Mitchell Chester, the state education commissioner. “Informational text” was given “short shrift compared to reading literature and stories” in the previous standards and Common Core brings some balance to that, he says.
The math standards have also drawn criticism, with some parents puzzling over new methods they lay out for teaching younger grades basic computation skills.
A bigger critique has come from the fact that Common Core’s standard for having students college- and career-ready ends with a second-year algebra course. Critics say that level of math would not equip a student to pursue a college degree in a so-called STEM field — science, technology, engineering, and math. A Pioneer report argues that the Common Core standards will lead to lower high school enrollment in advanced classes beyond Algebra II.
Stergios says schools will not be motivated to go beyond the Algebra II material that PARCC tests on. “The only places where they will go beyond Common Core,” he says, “is if they’re Wellesley or Westwood or Weston, who don’t give two hoots really about [test] scores and are aiming to get kids into Ivy League schools.”
Dianne Kelly, the superintendent of schools in Revere, thinks Common Core is, in fact, better preparing students for more advanced math. Kelly, a former math teacher who was on a statewide committee that reviewed the new standards when Massachusetts was considering adopting them, says Common Core exposes students earlier to algebraic concepts and puts an emphasis on “mathematical practice” that helps “apply the concepts they’re using to real world situations.”
Since 2010, the Revere schools, where about three-quarters of students come from low-income households, have more than doubled the share of students taking Algebra 1 in 8th grade rather than 9th, which makes it easier for students to reach advanced math classes such as calculus by their senior year. Enrollment at Revere High School’s calculus courses is up by 50 percent over that time.
“I don’t want to say that’s only because of Common Core, but understanding the curriculum these kids have been exposed to over the last four years is telling,” says Kelly.
“The idea that schools are just going to abandon all this advanced coursework because the Common Core didn’t prescribe the standards for them is crazy,” says Kelly. She points out that MCAS only tests students through geometry, typically a sophomore-year course, and that hasn’t prompted schools to abandon math beyond that level.
As for the Common Core-aligned PARCC test, reaction has been mixed. The test includes lots of open response questions and tests more types of writing than MCAS. In math, it goes much further than MCAS in asking students to show how they arrived at an answer, a step designed to encourage development of analytical reasoning skills, not just knowledge of formulas.
Last fall, Teach Plus, a Boston-based nonprofit, convened 350 Massachusetts teachers who reviewed and discussed the test. While 72 percent of the teachers rated PARCC a better overall assessment than MCAS, views were mixed on whether it was always grade-appropriate.
Some teachers have complained that the test isn’t developmentally appropriate in the earlier grades, particularly the English language arts section. Katy Shander-Reynolds, a fourth-grade teacher at Barbieri Elementary School in Framingham, calls the Common Core literacy standards “pretty reasonable.” But based on her review of sample PARCC questions, Shander-Reynolds says they were “abominably out of synch with what these kids are able to do,” including even the phrasing of questions, which she says were hard to understand and seemed to set students up to fail. “It’s frustrating to those of us whose whole career is aimed at helping children succeed,” she says.
Teachers from the high-performing Match charter schools Boston, on the other hand, give the test very good reviews. Stig Leschly, executive director of Match Education, which runs four charter schools, told a board of education hearing in June that PARCC tests “set out for our students and our staff a clear ladder to AP level work in late high school.”
Ryan Holmes, a teacher who helped design the Match curriculum for math, told the board Common Core and PARCC have improved instruction among math teachers at Match. Holmes cited a test question on volume as an example, saying PARCC demands that students show a more sophisticated understanding of the concept than MCAS.
PARCC “requires students to have a deep understanding of the material they’re learning, so teaching to the test is not an effective strategy to get them to do well,” he said. “If you don’t like teaching to the test, then you should embrace the PARCC assessments.”
When Donna Colorio ran for a seat on the Worcester School Committee in 2011, she says she didn’t even know what the Common Core standards were, even though the state had adopted them the previous year. That, she says, is part of the problem.
The more Colorio learned about the standards, the more convinced she became that Massachusetts had hastily abandoned its own high-quality standards and the more upset she became that the state had shifted to the new benchmarks without an extensive public review process.
Colorio organized a forum on Common Core in the spring of 2012. “I’m thinking 20 people are going to show up,” she says. “We had 135 people show up. It was packed. I became pretty much the pioneer of this in Worcester.”
Colorio is now the leader of Common Core opposition statewide. She is spearheading an effort to have a question that would repeal the standards placed on the 2016 statewide ballot. Organizers must gather nearly 65,000 signatures by late November.
The issue has “awakened a sleeping dragon,” says Colorio. “I have never met as many people engaged in their children’s education as they are now.” Colorio says what bothers her most about the switch to Common Core is the loss of control at the state level over school standards. “We have lost our independence,” she says.
Colorio says she also resents the influence of Bill Gates, whose foundation played a pivotal role in funding efforts to get states to adopt Common Core and has funded many organizations that have produced research studies backing Common Core and the new Common Core-aligned tests. She also questions the motives of Pearson, the giant education publishing company that has developed the PARCC test.
“I don’t like the fact that we’ve got this elitist 1 percent in this country controlling education,” she says, evincing some of the tea party-flavored antipathy to Common Core that has led opponents to brand the new standards “Obamacore,” much as critics of national health care reform have derided it as “Obamacare.”
The Gates Foundation has spent more than $200 million on Common Core efforts, funneling money to consultants who helped states, including Massachusetts, with their federal Race to the Top grant applications. The foundation also funded Common Core research and advocacy by groups spanning the ideological spectrum from national teachers unions to the US Chamber of Commerce and right-leaning think tanks like Fordham.
Teach Plus and the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education have also received Gates funding.
“They’ve given out so much money on Common Core that you’d have to really dance daintily around not to bump into somebody who’s been funded by Gates,” says Stergios. “They’re sort of judge and jury in their own case,” he says of the foundation.
Petrilli, the Fordham Institute president, says his organization has been entirely transparent about funding it receives. “We are glad that we got support from Gates. We have common cause on this,” he says. As for any idea that Gates has influenced Fordham to shift its views, Petrilli says, “We have been in favor of high standards and been in favor of national standards much longer than the Gates Foundation has been interested in this.”
The Gates strategy of funding groups across the political spectrum, the Washington Post reported last year, was part of a strategy to avoid “the usual collision between states’ rights and national interests” that had undermined efforts dating back to the 1950s to bring uniform education standards to the country.
The Gates efforts helped get 45 states to adopt Common Core. (Three have since repealed the standards.) But the same strong push for Common Core by Gates that united groups usually not on the same page has now seeded an alliance of equally strange political bedfellows that is hostile to the new standards and the tests being used to assess them.
Though Common Core and the new assessments are not federal programs, the heavy prod from the Obama administration for states to adopt them has set off states’ rights cries from activists like Colorio.
Meanwhile, teachers’ unions have turned against the Common Core tests as part of the overall backlash taking place against standardized tests. Anti-testing views have taken on particular intensity among teachers because of new evaluation systems — ushered in through the same Race to the Top program that encouraged adoption of Common Core — that tie educators’ evaluations to student performance on standardized tests.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association and the state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers have both come out against moving to the PARCC exam, which MTA president Barbara Madeloni referred to in a recent email to her members as part of the ongoing “testing madness.”
Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, calls the left-right attacks on Common Core and PARCC a “temporary convergence of interests.”
West is part of a team of researchers who conduct an annual nationwide poll for the journal Education Next. Their latest survey showed a big drop in teacher support for Common Core nationally, from 76 percent in 2013 to 40 percent in 2015.
West thinks a lot of that is because the transition to Common Core has happened alongside the rollout of the new teacher performance reviews incorporating student test scores. “Teachers are experiencing the implementation of the Common Core and new teacher evaluation systems as a package deal,” he says.
FILLING IN THE ANSWER
State officials at the center of the decision on whether to adopt the PARCC test say they’re committed to basing their recommendation on the best available evidence. To aid that effort, the state education secretary, Jim Peyser, has convened an informal group of advisors that includes education experts from area universities.
Fordham Institute is also planning to share findings with state officials by late October of an analysis it is conducting comparing MCAS and PARCC.
Peyser’s office has gone a step further and set out to try to test directly what the two assessments say about students’ readiness for college.
Last spring, his office recruited 866 students who were finishing their freshman year at eight public higher education campuses in the state, both two-year and four-year schools. The students, all of whom graduated from Massachusetts public high schools and took the MCAS graduation test in 10th grade, were randomly assigned to take the English or math sections of the current 10th grade MCAS test or math or English sections of the 10th and 11th grade PARCC exams.
Researchers from the consulting firm Mathematica analyzed the results in conjunction with the students’ SAT scores, college placement test results, and grades from their first year in college. The goal was to test the idea that PARCC offers a better measure of college readiness. The analysis found that scores on PARCC and MCAS were equally well correlated with college success. (See “MCAS vs. PARCC: Dead-heat in predicting college readiness.”)
As a gauge of college readiness, the results suggest PARCC is “equally as good as MCAS,” says Peyser. “But it’s not better.”
While higher scores on either high school test were correlated with higher scores on the other tests and performance in students’ first year in college, simply clearing the passing bar set by the two assessments did not put students on a similar trajectory.
PARCC’s “meeting expectations” benchmark was a better gauge of who is likely to fare well in college than the MCAS “proficiency” hurdle. That is not surprising, however. For earlier grade levels, the MCAS bar denoting proficiency has been raised over the years as overall student test performance has risen. But that adjustment has not been made for the 10th grade test used as a high-stakes graduation requirement.
“The MCAS proficiency standard has degraded quite a bit over the years,” says Peyser. In other words, it has become easier for students to pass the MCAS test required for graduation.
If Massachusetts switches to PARCC, the goal is to eventually have an 11th grade test that would be used as the state’s high-stakes graduation requirement. If the state sticks with MCAS, even those on opposite sides of the Common Core and PARCC debate agree that it needs to be retooled and the 10th grade graduation requirement bar should be raised.
There are lots of other factors the state education board will weigh in its upcoming decision. State officials say about three-quarters of Massachusetts districts have the capacity to give the PARCC test online this coming spring. There is a paper-and-pencil version of the test, but the goal of a switch to the new assessment would be to have all students taking it online. There are lots of questions about the cost of needed technology upgrades in districts and the sources of funding for those improvements.
The board is also waiting for more information on the estimated annual cost of PARCC, as there is concern that this will now increase with fewer states in the testing consortium.
As the decision date nears, there’s also plenty of intrigue generated by the crosscurrents involving the history of some central figures in the decision.
In 2010, during his unsuccessful first run for governor, Charlie Baker stood on the steps of the State House alongside Stergios, the Pioneer Institute executive director, to denounce the state education board’s move to adopt the Common Core standards. Baker testified against the move before the board. He said the Common Core standards may be comparable with the existing Massachusetts standards, but he worried in an op-ed for the Lowell Sun that switching standards would require switching to a new test and “effectively invite the federal government” into state policy decisions.
Today, Baker says he’s not inclined to weigh in on the PARCC decision and will likely leave it in the hands of the 11-member education board. But his past doubts about Common Core are not gone.
“I’m open-minded on this,” Baker says of the decision on which test to use. “But I worry a lot about turning something as important as this over to the national government,” he says, echoing his language of five years ago when he made clear he didn’t the buy the idea that the effort is entirely under state control.
Baker says he’s not ready to offer a view on the campaign to put a Common Core repeal question on the state ballot. “But as I’ve said many times, I’m a big believer in the initiative petition process,” he says.
If the Common Core repeal makes it onto the 2016 ballot and is passed, it would throw a big wrench into the state testing system if the board votes this fall to adopt the Common Core-aligned PARCC test.
Meanwhile, Peyser is a past executive director of Pioneer, but he went on to work for a decade for the New Schools Venture Fund, a nonprofit that has received Gates Foundation support and has funded projects involving Common Core. “My history is way too checkered” to be pigeonholed on the pending decision, says Peyser. “I have many relationships on both sides of this issue. I’ll have friends and enemies no matter what happens.”
For his part, Chester has drawn heat for his dual roles as the state education commissioner, who will make a recommendation to the education board on whether to switch to PARCC, and chairman of the PARCC governing board of state education commissioners, which has made him a national spokesman for the test consortium.
Chester is widely expected to recommend a switch to PARCC, but he insists he’s still weighing the evidence and plans to do what’s best for the state. “I will not recommend something that does not advance our educational program in Massachusetts,” he says. “I am not conflicted in that regard.”
Kelly, the Revere schools superintendent, worries that the debate has been overtaken by politics and lots of issues that don’t belong on the table. “We shouldn’t decide we don’t like this because Bill Gates is funding it or because critics of PARCC say it’s all about money for Pearson,” she says. All that should matter is “whether it’s better for kids.”
Kelly says the issue needs to get settled by taking a cue from a goal of the Common Core standards themselves — to boost students’ critical thinking skills. The decision should come, she says, from “taking information from multiple sources and fashioning it into a reasoned argument.”That high-stakes test is one the adults in charge now face.