A high-stakes education test

Mass. places trust in national standards

The controversy over federal education standards that the Massachusetts Board of Education approved this morning would be great material for an MCAS question that requires multilayered, critical thinking.  That’s because the clash is not so much about the finer points of competing sets of education standards as it is a proxy for competing views on the way forward for K-12 education.  In the end, it comes down to whom to trust to guard and build on the tremendous achievement gains that Massachusetts has made.

State education officials urged the board to endorse the Common Core standards, an effort championed by the National Governors Association and backed by the Obama administration to bring all states into alignment with a common set of curriculum standards. Analyses commissioned by the state and by a business-backed education policy group concluded that the national standards are as rigorous or are more rigorous than the nationally-recognized Massachusetts standards that have helped students here soar from the middle of the pack to the head of it since passage of the state’s landmark 1993 education reform law. 

Critics, led by the Pioneer Institute, say we risk losing all the progress we have made by throwing in with a national effort whose full dimensions are not even clear. The free-market-oriented think tank teamed up on Tuesday with Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker for a press conference delivering a blistering attack on the move to national standards. “With all the things in state government that don’t work, this one works,” Baker said of the state’s existing standards and testing as he urged the state board to reject the plan to join the national effort. In a statement issued after today’s vote, Pioneer said the board “turned back the clock on 15 years of student achievement and high academic success.”  

Nearly everyone agrees that the national standards were beefed up considerably during a public comment period, with much of the prodding coming from key stalwarts in the Massachusetts education reform effort.  Indeed, when asked at yesterday’s Baker campaign press conference to size up the national standards and the Massachusetts curriculum, Michael Sentance, a Weld administration education adviser, conceded, “They’re comparable.”  

Why make a big change to something that offers no clear-cut improvement over what we have?  One clear motivator is money. The Obama administration has made adoption of the Common Core standards an important factor in the next round of funding for the Race to the Top program, from which Massachusetts is seeking $250 million. There also may be long-term benefits to consistent, nationwide standards in terms of curriculum development, textbooks, and teacher training.

But what if the move is, as some critics fear, the first step toward scrapping the state’s rigorous standards, including the high-stakes MCAS graduation test? State Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester scoffed at the idea. “Some have characterized this as an attack on MCAS, which is absolutely false,” he said yesterday in a briefing for reporters.

But the fact is that MCAS is now on its way out.  The move to national standards only makes sense if it is followed by development of a national assessment. Indeed, Massachusetts is part of two different consortia of states that have received funding to develop a common assessment. That’s not so bad if you have faith that such a test will match up to the standards of MCAS, but that is, at this point, all a matter of faith. 

Will a common assessment be suitable for use as the Massachusetts graduation test when most states have no such high-stakes requirement?  What will happen when there is disagreement among states over revisions to the common standards? Will there be a move to incorporate portfolios of student work or other “softer” outcomes into a national assessment?  States can modify or augment the national standards with their own benchmarks that represent up to 15 percent of the total math and English standards. But even supporters of national standards find grounds for concern in Massachusetts.

“You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to believe this could end up hurting education in Massachusetts,” says Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a national education think tank that conducted one of several studies of the national standards.  The Fordham analysis concluded that the Massachusetts and national standards are “in the same ballpark,” and said Massachusetts and a handful of other states faced “a bona fide quandary” in weighing whether to adopt the Common Core standards.  

Fordham has been a big backer of national standards, but primarily because of the promise of dramatically raising standards in states with low standards and achievement results. The group’s report identifies a dozen or so states whose existing standards are as good as the proposal national guidelines, and it flags for special attention the “singular case of Massachusetts,” which is widely regarded as the gold standard when it comes to state education reform efforts.

The current Massachusetts system, including the curriculum standards and both student and teacher testing, is one that “is paying real dividends,” says Petrilli. “If you take the standards away, is this entire edifice going to fall apart? Some clearly would like it to,” he says of those who have long opposed high-stakes testing and rigorous curriculum content standards.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Chester insists there will be no backsliding on the state’s high standards. “I have confidence this is not going to knock us off course,” he said yesterday.

Not everyone is so certain. “All we know right now is Massachusetts standards have been replaced with a set of standards that are very similar,” says Petrilli. “The question is, what comes next?”

That’s what has some people so worried.