Reading & Reacting: Is Mass. Leading the Way to a More Cautious Route on Common Tests?

Photo: Race to the Top

cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo by Deval Patrick

By Catherine Gewertz @ EdWeek’s Curriculum Matters blog

A more cautious route to the Common Core testing regime is something every state should be considering. I, for one, am glad that Massachusetts decided to take a steadier, more thoughtful approach. It gives me hope that the state may use its leverage to lead, rather than simply fall in line.

As Gewertz explains, Massachusetts does have leverage.

Because Massachusetts is a bellwether state in the standards-and-assessment world, its choices carry a lot of weight among educators around the country. A state that consistently wallops most other states—and many countries—on academic tests has a certain street cred when it walks into the policymaking arena. That’s why yesterday’s state board of education decision about the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) exams could influence other states’ choices.

Slowing down PARCC implementation and leaving a window of opportunity to reassess the effectiveness of its results shows thought and responsiveness that seems currently in short supply.

Considering that the Bay State has been outperforming most states and has a proven track record of standards implementation and solid assessment practice, slowing down and looking at results prior to making major shifts only makes sense.

Massachusetts could have decided to jump chest-deep into the new tests, sticking by its Race to the Top commitment to sunset its current test, the MCAS, and start relying on the PARCC tests in 2015. It could have attached stakes to the PARCC results, pegging high school graduation and other important decisions to scores that could be less glowing than those produced by the MCAS. But it decided against that strategy. It will keep using PARCC and MCAS simultaneously so it can figure out which assessments set better expectations for its students.

While the notion of devoting the time required to implement both tests is staggering on its face, analyzing which test yields the best results only makes sense. This is even more important if a transition is inevitable, which it certainly looks to be so. I have a hard time seeing the Commonwealth walking away from the Race to the Top money “encouraging” PARCC adoption.

This article is also the first mention I have seen discussing concerns over the cut score, since the New York debacle. I am not confident in either PARCC or Smarter Balance to set an appropriate cut score, honestly. There is just too much momentum to continue perpetuating how broken America’s schools are. Plus, if students were to do too well, it undermines the whole enterprise, and the two outfits would simply move the bar anyway.

The mention of two cut points could potentially reveal a middle path, but that too seems like a doomed scenario, as it also undermines the broader effort. Moreover, it could very well weaken the stick that is being assembled to beat teachers into submission across the country. Ironically, many teachers are compliant with the transitions in whatever form they take. Despite a growing resistance to the Common Core, there still remains a significant number of teachers feeling powerless.

My hope is that Massachusetts will at least take a serious look at what this state has done so well, before simply submitting to an alternative that looks increasingly dubious.

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