Ed commissioner floats standardized testing compromise
By State House News Service | October 20, 2015, 5:57 EST
MALDEN — As the state prepares to decide whether to adopt a new standardized test known as PARCC or stick with the existing MCAS exams, Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester on Monday put forward a third option — a hybrid of the two tests.
“I am considering this new model, this door number three, that takes advantage of our access to PARCC development…but uses that development for the construction of a MCAS 2.0, and gives us the running room to ensure that that MCAS 2.0 is exactly the test that we want,” Chester told the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education at a special meeting focused on student assessment.
The board is scheduled to vote next month on whether to implement PARCC, a test aligned with the Common Core curriculum standards and developed by a consortium of states, including Massachusetts.
The consortium started with 26 states, but is now down to seven as states have dropped the PARCC exam. Louisiana, one of the original consortium states, has moved to instead develop its own exam based on the PARCC standards, a route Chester said Massachusetts could follow as well.
“Any path to MCAS 2.0 that involves PARCC must be a direction over which we have complete control,” Chester said, adding that the state must be able to customize any exam it gives to meet “our needs and desires.”
Chester said that the board’s discussions so far and public comment on the exams have helped him realize the importance of Massachusetts retaining control.
“It’s critical that we ensure our control of our standards and assessments, and not leave that to chance or to decisions of other states,” he said.
Gov. Charlie Baker expressed similar views last week, saying in a WGBH radio interview that he did not want the state to end up in a position “where we do not control our own destiny” when it comes to assessments. Baker said he was not recommending a specific course for the board and the only guidance he has given members was that a state that values education as highly as Massachusetts does should not lose the ability to set its own course.
Chester said that MCAS, developed in response to a 1993 education reform law, “was a terrific 20th century assessment” that has now “reached the point of diminishing returns” with classroom instruction at times focusing too much on the skills students need to succeed on the test.
The PARCC test would encourage instruction focused instead on critical thinking, application of knowledge and research, Chester said.
“I don’t know whether PARCC is the best test out there, but I am asserting to you that it is a substantial advancement in very positive ways over MCAS 1.0,” Chester said.
Board members said Chester’s suggestion of a “door number three” in what had previously been thought of as a choice solely between PARCC or MCAS was an idea that would need more discussion.
Roland Fryer, a Harvard University economics professor, said that Chester’s third door seemed “more like a hallway,” adding that he was “a little confused” about what it would entail. Penny Noyce, a doctor and co-founder of the education improvement non-profit the Noyce Foundation, said she had “approximately a million questions.”
Suffolk University President Margaret McKenna said she didn’t think either MCAS or PARCC was the answer, citing a recent report conducted by Mathematica Policy Research for the state Executive Office of Education, which found both tests to be comparable predictors of college readiness.
“We just need to start thinking maybe more creatively about how we get there,” McKenna said of developing a new exam.
Mathematica researchers presented their findings to the board Monday evening in one of two meetings this week that will include discussion of student assessments.
At a Tuesday meeting, the board is slated to hear a state-level overview of the results from last spring’s pilot PARCC testing in a sampling of school districts.
— Written by Katie Lannan
Copyright State House News Service