Bay State reformers backed MCAS over PARCC, think tank says

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BOSTON – Debate over standardized testing in Massachusetts schools heated up Wednesday as the Pioneer Institute, an independent policy research organization, rebutted an argument backing adoption of a multi-state assessment system by pointing to the positions taken by two education reformers who helped to create the MCAS exam.

Former Massachusetts Republican Gov. Bill Weld and former state Senate President Tom Birmingham, a Democrat, who helped write the state’s 1993 Education Reform Act, decried the federal Common Core standards during a 2013 forum presented by Pioneer. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test, developed by Massachusetts in partnership with other states, is aligned with the federal standards.

“Common Core and PARCC are academically mediocre and inferior to the Bay State’s homegrown MCAS and historically successful standards,” Pioneer said in a statement highlighting comments made at the 2013 forum.

The organization was responding to a Boston Globe article that discouraged state policymakers from keeping what they termed an the outdated MCAS, or Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, and instead suggested switching to the newer PARCC exam. The article, published Tuesday, was written by Richard Freeland, a former Northeastern University president and state commissioner of higher education, and John Davis, the chairman of the board of trustees at Nichols College in Dudley, Massachusetts, and former chief executive of American Saw & Manufacturing Co. in East Longmeadow.

“What was considered challenging 20 years ago is not good enough in today’s highly competitive and increasingly globalized business environment,” Freeland and Davis said in the op-ed piece. “Ask any employer whether the metrics they use today are the same as those from two decades ago and the answer will be the same: Not if we want to stay in business.”

The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which guides policy, including testing standards, is considering whether to adopt PARCC, stick with MCAS or devise an updated version of MCAS. Jim Stergios, Pioneer’s executive director, has been outspoken against PARCC and in favor of staying with locally controlled exams.

At the 2013 forum, Birmingham said he feared the adoption of Common Core standards.

“If there is no strategy under Common Core… to lift the lower-performing states up to the higher-performing, I’m afraid all the political vectors will push the bar down so that everybody can clear that bar,” Birmingham said in a video from the event.

He added that the standard would be significantly lower than those already in place in Massachusetts.

Weld also criticized the federal standards.

“I’m not so sure about the Common Core approach to things,” he said. “It kind of looks to me like an apology for muddle-headed mediocrity.”

After the adoption of MCAS in 1993, the state’s students’ scores on Scholastic Aptitude Tests, used by many colleges to evaluate applicants, steadily improved for more than a decade, Birmingham pointed out. Bay State students scored best in the nation in all grades and categories on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2005, he said.

Pioneer recently released a report that highlighted six flaws in PARCC and pitched a modified MCAS, or MCAS 2.0, as the ideal solution to lower costs while providing better information about student performance. The state education board said last month that an updated MCAS, or MCAS 2.0, was a possible option. Both state Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester and Education Secretary Jim Peyser, a former head of the Pioneer Institute, have suggested taking that route in recent statements.