Guest Commentary: Something Is Rotten In The State Of Massachusetts

Guest Commentary: Something Is Rotten In The State Of Massachusetts

As the state's date nears for deciding whether to use PARCC instead of MCAS in standardized testing, guest columnist Rebecca Steinitz raises questions about PARCC. (Ty Wright/AP)

As the state’s date nears for deciding whether to use PARCC instead of MCAS in standardized testing, guest columnist Rebecca Steinitz raises questions about PARCC. (Ty Wright/AP)

By Rebecca Steinitz

An Open Letter to Gov. Baker about Transparency, Accountability and the PARCC Test

Dear Gov. Baker,

Eighteen months ago, I wrote an open letter to President Obama in which I shared my deep qualms about the quality and efficacy of the PARCC test. The letter quickly went viral, suggesting that the nation’s parents, teachers and politicians shared my concerns. In the subsequent year and a half, our concerns have only escalated, an opt-out movement has emerged, and a growing number of educators have spoken out against the increased focus on testing in American education.

I wish I were writing to you today, Gov. Baker, to tell you that my concerns have been assuaged and that I am ready to embrace the PARCC tests. Unfortunately, I am not. Instead, I am writing to express my new concern: that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and Commissioner Mitchell Chester are recklessly pushing Massachusetts into the PARCC test, without giving educators, citizens and lawmakers the information we need to make a real choice about our children’s educational future.

The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will vote Nov. 17 on whether to replace the MCAS with the PARCC test.  You would think the DESE and the PARCC Consortium, which designs and administers the test, would thus be committed to providing us with as much information about the PARCC as possible. Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be the case.

Since I wrote to President Obama, just after the release of the first practice PARCC tests in April 2014, the PARCC Consortium has released little new information about the actual content of the tests. While the 2015 MCAS test is available online, the 2015 PARCC test is not – and there is no information on when it will be. PARCC does have a set of practice tests on its website, but they feature largely the same questions that were available in 2013 and 2014.  We thus have no way of knowing if the quality of the test questions has improved since I and many others raised questions about them.

PARCC also isn’t saying much about test scores. The consortium initially set its cut scores (which indicate the level at which a student is performing, from Level 1, “did not yet meet academic expectations,” to Level 5, “exceeded academic expectations”), but did not release them. This move prompted widespread skepticism, according to Catherine Gewertz, in EdWeek’s Curriculum Matters blog: “‘Cut points on the reporting scale ought to be something they’re willing to let go of,’ said one assessment expert who’s very familiar with PARCC’s work to establish cut scores. ‘I can’t understand why they wouldn’t do that.'” Although PARCC soon bowed to pressure and released the cut scores, they still  “chose not to … say what portion of students performed at each of the five achievement levels.” Does that sound like an organization committed to transparency and the public interest?

Here in Massachusetts, the DESE is also holding PARCC data close to its chest. One reason the PARCC has been touted as an advance is that educators and parents will receive results more quickly because the test is taken online. So far that promise has not been met. School districts received preliminary MCAS results in June; state, district and school results were released publicly last week; and parents will receive their children’s scores at the beginning of October. While bare-bones statewide PARCC data was released last week, districts still haven’t received their preliminary results, and won’t until October. The public and parents won’t receive any more information until unspecified dates in November and December.  Meanwhile the education board is voting on the PARCC test Nov. 17. Given that the DESE holds schools accountable, shouldn’t they be accountable to the state of Massachusetts and make this information available before that vote takes place?

Even as the DESE drags its heels on releasing actual data, it appears to have become a propaganda arm for PARCC. Last spring, for instance, the department shared a presentation titled “PARCC/MCAS Choice: Why PARCC in 2015?” The presentation included six slides of information about PARCC, complete with enthusiastic exclamation points [“83% (Math) to 94% (ELA) of students responded that they had enough time!”), no information about MCAS and two slides of bullet points in answer to the question, “So why should a district elect to administer PARCC instead of MCAS in spring 2015?” One bullet point was “Districts that choose to administer PARCC in spring 2015 will be able to do so at ‘NO RISK’ – they will have their 2015 accountability levels ‘held harmless.’” This means that the 2015 scores of districts that choose PARCC cannot damage the district in the DESE rankings that affect the status, funding and reputation of every school in the state – even if every student in the district tanks the test. In some circles, that might be called a bribe.

Today on the DESE website, the MCAS page has a list of “MCAS Headlines” about test administration and an MCAS question of the day. Meanwhile, the PARCC page also has a “PARCC Overview,” a section “For Parents and Educators” and a set of  “PARCC Communications Tools,” making it hard to tell whether the DESE is managing the state’s education system or shilling for PARCC. Not surprisingly, there is no PARCC question of the day, but there is one more crucial sentence: “Massachusetts has assumed a significant leadership role in the design and development of the PARCC Assessments.”

It’s no secret that Commissioner Mitchell Chester is a strong advocate for the PARCC test, serving as the governing board chair of the consortium. As you know, the Pioneer Institute, of which you used to be the executive director, has challenged Chester’s involvement in the PARCC decision, stating that “This is clearly a conflict of interest,” and “The commissioner’s interactions with local education leaders have led many to believe that the decision to abandon MCAS has already been made.” You have scoffed at these charges, but the DESE’s behavior is not reassuring.

In fact, the Commonwealth is not united behind the PARCC tests. While 54 percent of Massachusetts districts chose to adopt PARCC this year, their choice seems as likely to have been dictated by anxiety about the future and by the promise of “no risk” as by enthusiasm. Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Teachers Association opposes PARCC, and State Rep. Marjorie Decker and 53 co-sponsors have filed a bill that would place a three-year moratorium on adopting the PARCC test.

So, Gov. Baker, is this really the moment to hand over our children’s futures to the PARCC Consortium, which has already proven itself to be less than transparent and accountable to the people of Massachusetts? It’s also worth noting that membership in the consortium has fallen from 24 states and the District of Columbia to 11 states and the District, of which as few as six may actually administer the PARCC next year.  Is this really the engine we want driving our education system?

Most Massachusetts educators agree that it is time to revisit the MCAS, and many citizens of the Commonwealth believe that we need to take a close look at how much and what kind of testing we impose on our school districts. But this is work for Massachusetts, not an outside consortium. Instead of embracing an alien, unproven testing regimen, why not focus on what Massachusetts already does better than any other state in the country: educating our children?

Rebecca Steinitz is a writer, editor and literacy consultant in Massachusetts urban high schools. She was previously an English professor and director of the freshman writing program at Ohio Wesleyan University, and director of the high school teacher education program at Lesley University’s School of Education.

  • Iona

    Good op-ed; putting our kids through “teaching to the test” for the MCAS is bad enough—it certainly has cast a stifling shadow over my son’s classroom experiences. I don’t agree at all that we in Mass. educate our children better than any other state—the basis for that claim should be examined just as much as any testing instrument/protocols—so I disagree with RS there. But imposing a new test on students and their teachers in this helter-skelter but forcible manner means a lot of adults aren’t willing or able to do their homework.

  • TJTruth2

    Thank you, well done. I hope Governor Baker pays heed to this thoughtful and persuasive argument.

  • Betsy Smith

    When wondering why a given plan is being touted over another plan, one piece of advice is to follow the money. Google Pearson and see what you find.

  • worldhistoryteacher

    Get rid of the tests and just send home 3-4 surveys based on CC goals and whether the parent/guardian think they are being met. There could be an online or text component that shows what meeting the standards look like – with 1 or 2 problems or prompts for those that want to know more. When students are in high school they could also fill out the survey. That would do it.

  • Ether Doc

    Educators seem reluctant in general to measure education. Yet we must if we want to assess how well our children are learning. Arguments about the specifics of testing are fine, but without some standardized measurements, we cannot draw any worthwhile conclusions.

  • lindam313

    I am wondering if this point has been addressed with PARCC – I read some research (sorry, can’t recall where) recently that said that when people read serious content on the computer rather than on a piece of paper, the comprehension of that content goes down. I am curious if any research has been done comparing the same PARCC material being done on a computer vs being completed with paper and pencil under testing situations. Secondarily, has there been a research completed that demonstrates whether or not students who score a proficient level on MCAS exams are prepared for college work or if they end up in remedial college courses. If strong scores on MCAS exams lead to prepared high schoolers attending college, then why do we need to “switch” to another exam? Where is all the money behind this switch coming from, to whom is it going, etc?

  • jrothastro

    PPARC may or may not be a valid instrument of assessment (as you note, we cannot really judge given the relative lack of transparency), but it surely is a business opportunity, and while there is nothing in principle wrong with people making a living on curriculum and assessment materials (I’ve done it myself), it does raise the prospects of misaligned incentives and conflicts of interest. Then there are the logistical and technological challenges posed by PPARC and the apparent preference by many Common Core states for Smarter Balanced, and it certainly seems that we should not rush headlong into this. Thanks for the column – JR