Get It Straight: Massachusetts Isn't Scrapping PARCC

As predicted, Massachusetts’ recent decision to create its own hybrid exam to measure student progress has proven to be a way for all sides to claim victory. While many are claiming, wrongly, that Massachusetts is scrapping PARCC, others are claiming that this is evidence that high-stakes tests are bad and Massachusetts is finally realizing that. Hit the brakes, folks. In 1993, Massachusetts passed the Education Reform Act, where it committed to a set of higher learning standards and implemented a required high school exit exam commonly known as MCAS. In recent years, however, state leaders have realized that despite a 90 percent pass rate on MCAS, 37 percent of their graduates are still showing up to college needing to take remedial courses. (That number jumps to 65 percent for community colleges.) Policymakers decided it was time to give their standards a bit of an upgrade and Common Core was a logical way to do that. Since PARCC is aligned to the Common Core, that too seemed like a logical assessment to use, especially since they had determined that MCAS was not predictive enough of college readiness. Politics plays a big role in the Board’s recent vote to create a new hybrid exam. But in addition to the politics, Massachusetts tends to prefer being in the driver’s seat when it comes to creating and developing its own “stuff.” And their track record on education and student achievement certainly leads many to conclude that they are deserving of deference on this front. Massachusetts will take questions from PARCC and also from MCAS to create a hybrid test closely tied to the Common Core as well as to the Massachusetts standards that will be called...drumroll please...MCAS 2.0. However, contrary to much of the spin over the weekend, they will remain part of the PARCC consortium. An excerpt from Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester’s recommendation:
The approach I have recommended lets us continue to benefit from the high-quality, next-generation PARCC assessment in which we've invested a great deal of time and effort. But it also ensures that the assessment will reflect the Commonwealth's unique needs and concerns.
As with any public policy decision, there are downsides here. The long awaited ability to compare student data between states will be lost, unless other states adopt the test that Massachusetts will be working over the next year to create. (A recent Providence Journal story mentions Rhode Island might decide to do just that). But perhaps the greatest downside are those latching on to this story to claim victory for their side. Randi Weingarten tweeted this, despite it being demonstrably untrue. https://twitter.com/rweingarten/status/668485437342793728   Many Rhode Islanders tired of having their dismal performance splashed on the front page of every newspaper see it as a way to escape the “if Mass can do it, we can do it” mantra. Massachusetts can’t really be 40 percent better anymore if they adopt a different test, and that’s easier than facing the hard truths that the results reveal. Those who favor states’ rights and see Common Core and PARCC (or Smarter Balanced) as federal overreach are high-fiving too because they see this as proof that they are somehow vindicated. And truth be told, if every state prioritized education the way Massachusetts does and had the will to stay focused instead of blinking at every turn, I’d admit they had every reason to celebrate. But as usual, kids and parents are lost in the shuffle. Parents believe that standardized tests identify which children need help while also providing parents with the knowledge the specific areas in which help is needed. It’s safe to say they don’t care much about what the test is called as long as it helps them support their child. As Kate Zernike of the New York Times recently said on PBS Newshour, many see Massachusetts as the gold standard or as carrying the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. She’s right. So let’s see what they come up with and then work hard to learn from it (or even adopt it) if it turns out to be a better test. But let’s also be honest about what they are doing and stop crowing about victories that aren’t even real. Massachusetts students will take PARCC next year and will then move on to MCAS 2.0 and yes, they will still have to pass that test to earn a high school diploma, regardless of what anyone’s tweets like to claim.  
Erika Sanzi
Erika Sanzi is a mother of three sons and taught in public schools in Massachusetts, California and Rhode Island. She has served on her local school board in Cumberland, Rhode Island, advocated for fair school funding at the state level, and worked on campaigns of candidates she considers to be champions for kids and true supporters of great schools. She is currently a Fordham senior visiting ...

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