How to Fool the Public, One Education Test At A Time

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What do you call the seller if you label new English Language Arts test items as more rigorous than those on the original tests with the same name and then sell another state these new English Language Arts test items knowing that parents there expect the original test items, not those wrongly described as “more rigorous”?

That’s the situation in Rhode Island, which is adopting/buying from Massachusetts educational test items based on Common Core’s standards called PARCC (which stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers). Only many people in Rhode Island don’t know that, because the new Rhode Island test is named after MCAS (short for Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System), a pre-Common Core test that had more rigorous English Language Arts standards than the current ELA PARCC tests.

One example of the difference:  The original MCAS tests each had four questions requiring an open response from students that teachers would then evaluate. The new Rhode Island Common Core-based MCAS/PARCC test doesn’t.

How is the bait-and-switch occurring? Massachusetts education officials have replaced the original MCAS with another version they are informally calling MCAS 2.0 or “next generation MCAS,” though the new tests bear little resemblance to the original. Since 2015, the so-called MCAS tests have been completely based on the lower-quality Common Core standards.

We don’t know if the Rhode Island Department of Education knows it has been bamboozled because state education officials there haven’t told Rhode Island parents that the “MCAS” tests it is giving Rhode Island students are PARCC in disguise. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education convinced Rhode Island education officials and the Rhode Island legislature to use the Bay State’s tests in place of Rhode Island’s previously used PARCC tests.  Did it tell Rhode Island education commissioner Ken Wagner and state Representative Gregg Amore that Massachusetts’s current tests, called MCAS, use mainly PARCC test items and bear no resemblance to the Bay State’s pre-Common Core tests?  That would be the ethical thing to do.

Why are PARCC tests being called MCAS in Massachusetts? Because state law (the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993) requires assessment of state standards in grade 10 through state tests called MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) and the law couldn’t be changed without the legislature knowing about the game being played. So, if the Massachusetts education department and state board of education keep the name, but change its substance, the governor, the secretary of education, and the state legislature won’t be, officially, wiser.

In addition, no one but Massachusetts education department staff, Secretary of Education Jim Peyser, and probably the chairman of the State Board of Education, Paul Sagan, can tell the public who in Massachusetts was on the grade-level test committees that determined the pass/fail and achievement level cut-offs. These committees are each supposed to have relevant parents, teachers from relevant grade levels, and a few Massachusetts state legislators on them. But this kind of transparency is unlikely to be part of the four-year State Plan in education created by the state education department to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Real transparency would give the game away.  

It all might have been different if Massachusetts voters had gotten a chance to decide. Two years ago, a parents’ initiative petition sought to put a question on the November 2016 state election ballot asking voters if they wanted the kindergarten-through-12th-grade curriculum in their own public schools to continue to be based on Common Core’s weak standards and the statewide tests aligned with these standards. Supporters got the number of voters’ signatures they needed, and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey declared the ballot question constitutional.

Common Core supporters didn’t want voters to get a chance to pass judgment, so they (the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, or MBAE) appealed the Attorney General’s decision to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Their law firm, Foley Hoag, of Boston, offered a ridiculous argument, that the annual release of used test items was not related to a test’s transparency. Justice Margot Botsford, since retired from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, apparently bought the argument, and she quashed the ballot question.

Why was stopping the ballot question so important? The MBAE, incentivized by a huge grant from the Gates Foundation, which still supports Common Core, seems to have believed that keeping Common Core’s inferior standards and “closing achievement gaps” downward was more important in the Bay State than strengthening all students academically — which is what the Bay State’s pre-Common Core standards and tests had done.

So, here we are in November 2017, with a backlash against phony “MCAS” tests that use PARCC items and address Common Core’s standards. And the media don’t bother to note that today’s MCAS tests bear no resemblance to the real thing. But who cares about truthfulness except the parents and grandparents of today’s academically deprived students who have been punished by unknown pass/fail committees?


Sandra Stotsky, former senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is professor of education emerita at the University of Arkansas. Read her past columns here.