PARCC slowly gaining on MCAS, but hurdles remain
PARCC isn’t standing still. Heading into the second year of field testing in the spring of 2015, about 60 percent of Massachusetts school districts have opted to jettison MCAS for PARCC, the new online student assessment regime; roughly 40 percent of districts have decided to stay with MCAS.
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education hoped for a robust showing of adopters during the two-year “test drive” in order to give the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education enough evidence about PARCC’s pros and cons before it votes on whether to replace MCAS with the controversial online test. PARCC is designed to line up with the national Common Core standards that the state adopted several years ago.
The statewide 60-40 split mirrors what the The MetroWest Daily News found when the newspaper took a closer look at the schools in its coverage area: Of the 20 schools it examined in the Metrowest/Milford region, two districts opted to switch over to PARCC for the spring testing period, while eight decided to stay with MCAS. Some districts such as Framingham and Marlborough are biding their time and have yet to make a decision.
The PARCC versus MCAS debate comes down to several issues. MCAS supporters are taking a don’t-mess-with-success approach that has helped to put Massachusetts in the forefront of K-12 education nationwide.
In addition to the philosophical wrangling over the best test, there has been a considerable amount of handwringing over practical concerns, such as how cash-poor districts will cope with technology and training costs involved in making the switch to an online test.
The PARCC versus MCAS debate continues to simmer in school districts, but state officials largely support the switch over: Massachusetts is one of the key PARCC states and state Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester chairs the PARCC governing board. But some district officials are beginning to wonder out loud about the depth of the Bay State commitment and whether the test might eventually be might be discarded.
The number of PARCC states continues to shrink. Once 23 states strong, the group has dwindled down to 15, with Louisiana withdrawing in June.
A rival group of more than 20 states, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) are test-driving another online assessment. Four New England states, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont, are members of this group. (One of the major differences between PARCC and SBAC is that SBAC is “computer adaptive,” meaning that during a test, students are given harder or easier follow-up questions based on their previous responses.)
Some of the resistance to PARCC has little to do with the merits or the drawbacks of the test itself. Pearson, the company developing the actual test students take, has emerged as a target in several states.
Pearson is the sole test vendor developing the PARCC test. The company could earn more than $1 billion if enough states use its test. The SBAC allows individual states to solicit bids from a number of companies to design the test used in their schools.
Politico calls the battle over testing contracts the “new front” in the war over Common Core.
The American Institutes for Research (AIR), a Washington-based nonpartisan, nonprofit behavioral and social science research group, used the lack of a competitive bidding process in New Mexico as the basis for a lawsuit to force the state to drop PARCC. However, the research organization lost the battle.
Massachusetts officials kept a close eye on that fight, and they appear to be encouraged. Chester said in a statement provided to Education Week that the New Mexico ruling “allows us to get back to the work started by states and strengthened by thousands of teachers-developing a new generation of high-quality assessments.”
But the research group has yet to decide whether it intends to appeal the New Mexico decision. A fresh lawsuit could put a damper on the move to PARCC in Massachusetts and elsewhere. For the moment, AIR isn’t giving up. “We’d like to see more competition,” Jon Cohen, an AIR executive vice president, told the Santa Fe Reporter. “We’re going to circle our wagons and consider our options.”
— GABRIELLE GURLEY
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