Rotten to the core: Big money pushes PARCC and Common Core

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Each year, much is written and said about K-12 education when students head back to school. That will be especially true this fall, as the education policy community eagerly awaits a decision by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education about whether to keep the MCAS tests or switch to assessments developed by the national Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).

The decision will impact not only which test Massachusetts uses to assess student achievement, but also what is taught in Massachusetts public schools. PARCC is aligned with the controversial Common Core curriculum, with its emphasis on workplace readiness. MCAS, on the other hand, was aligned with Massachusetts’ own standards, which emphasized a liberal arts education and were regarded as the highest-quality academic content standards in the country. In other words, Common Core emphasizes skills, while the original Massachusetts standards outlined a body of knowledge that all students should master and understand.

John Adams, author of our state constitution, believed that a “free government” required “a virtuous citizenry” and that the moral citizen’s ability to fulfill his (or with Abigail’s help, her) civic role underscored the essential role of education in ensuring and perpetuating the principles of a modern liberal democracy.

Adams’ Constitution and Massachusetts’ landmark 1993 Education Reform Act share the philosophy that education has two main purposes: (1) developing the informed, well-rounded citizenry needed to maintain America’s great experiment in ordered liberty, and (2) providing students with basic skills for self-reliance and happiness. In this view of education, vocational and career skills are important, but students’ literary, historical, mathematical, and scientific knowledge take precedence.

MCAS may require some updating, but it bears remembering that the MCAS regime gave Massachusetts an unprecedented rise in student achievement, making our students the top performers on national assessments and among the world’s best performing students in math and science.

PARCC, on the other hand, is mostly untested. What Massachusetts knows about PARCC’s impact on student achievement is negative. In the last round of the National Assessment of Educational Progress,  fourth-graders showed the steepest decline in the nation in reading.

Over the next few months, we’ll see a blizzard of pro-PARCC money and federal pressure to adopt the new tests.

The campaign is likely to begin with a report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute comparing MCAS and PARCC. Fordham is a long-standing supporters of national standards. Theirs was one of the comparisons that state Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester relied on in 2010 when he recommended that the board jettison Massachusetts’ best-in-the-nation English and math standards in favor of the national standards known as Common Core. Fordham rated the two sets of standards “too close to call,” even though the Common Core English standards cut the amount of classic literature, drama and poetry state students study by 60 percent and its math standards largely end with what one mathematician calls “Algebra II lite.”

After the federal government, the biggest funder of Common Core and its associated tests has been the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Foundation has spent over $200 million developing and selling Common Core; nearly $3.5 million of it has gone to Fordham.

When Fordham’s comparison inevitably concludes that Massachusetts should adopt PARCC, one of the loudest voices in the chorus of praise will undoubtedly be Achieve, Inc. Created by the National Governors Association, Achieve has been the driving force behind PARCC even though it had no previous experience with student testing.

Like the Gates Foundation, Achieve advocates for a curriculum focused on skills rather than academic content. The group has collected more than $36 million from the Gates Foundation since 2008.

The data on PARCC is no better than the facts about Fordham and Achieve. When it began the process of developing tests linked to Common Core, about 25 states were members of the consortia. The number is now in single digits.

PARCC isn’t very popular in Massachusetts, either. During the last academic year, the commonwealth’s schools were given the choice of administering either MCAS or PARCC tests. About three-quarters of the high schools chose MCAS. Education activists are attempting to put Common Core and PARRC on the ballot in 2016. The initiative calls for Massachusetts to ditch PARCC and Common Core and revert to its homegrown standards and MCAS.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has a momentous decision before it. With student achievement that is the best in the country and among the best in the world, no state has more to lose from making the wrong decision than Massachusetts.

 Jim Stergios is Executive Director of Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.