Students in Massachusetts have been taking the standardized test known as MCAS for almost 20 years. On Tuesday, that may change.
That’s when the state board of education plans to decide whether to scrap the current MCAS in favor of a yet-undeveloped MCAS test, based largely on the Common Core-aligned Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test.
While the decision could have far-reaching effects for the classrooms of tomorrow, getting to this point has been anything but straightforward.
The Year That Changed Everything
To understand how we got here, we need to take a trip back to an almost legendary year in Massachusetts education: 1993.
In 1993, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the state must fund schools to give all students an adequate education, whether their town is rich, poor or in between.
The same month, the Legislature passed the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993. The new education law injected millions of new state dollars into local districts, but called for new standards and new accountability in return.
“Essentially the quid pro quo was that if we are going to pump a whole lot more money into public education, there needs to be some set of standards and some set of assessing how students are doing,” says Dan French, executive director of the Center for Collaborative Education.
In 1993, French was the director of instruction and curriculum for the state education department. It was his job to develop the new standards.
He did that for three years, until then-Gov. William Weld shook up the education board. French left the department. Standards were created, tweaked, scrapped, forged again from scratch. And at the end, there were new state standards that would become a national model.
New Standards, New Tests
But with standards, you need to know if you’re meeting them.
“There was a conversation going on of ‘OK, what should an assessment system that corresponded look like?’ ” says French.
The answer, starting in 1998, was the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test, or MCAS. A single, untimed, mostly multiple-choice test, taken on paper.
That year, students in fourth, eighth and 10th grade had to take it. And soon 10th-graders had to pass it to graduate. There were larger stakes as well: Every school had to score well, too, or face being taken over by the state.
“You don’t want to fail it because it can ruin your school, it can ruin your career and it can ruin the kids,” says Dolores Wood, an English teacher at West Roxbury Academy. “That’s the high-stakes part of it that everyone hates so much.”
A former journalist, Wood began substitute-teaching a few years into the MCAS era. At first she loathed MCAS, but her thoughts on assessments shifted when she was given a classroom of her own.
“I don’t hate it as much as I thought I would, once I actually got into the classroom,” says Wood. “You have to assess. You can’t ignore assessments. We just have to figure out as a society what kind of assessment we want.”
Wood walks around her classroom in Boston’s West Roxbury Academy, collecting papers. It’s 10th-grade honors English, where, today, the students used the text of Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” to make a claim, then back it up with evidence and reasoning.
“I don’t see this kind of ‘claim, evidence, reasoning’ as test prep, but it does turn out to be,” says Wood. “I do focus on it. I don’t want to fail. I don’t want my kids to fail. But more than that, I want them to be able to express themselves.”
And that’s the rub many teachers face. It’s a tension between doing well on the test and developing skills that are hard to measure on a test.
“What every teacher wants,” Wood says, “is that the test is not going to get in the way of teaching.”
The Next Milestone: No Child Left Behind
What teachers want, though, is not always what drives education policy. Take, for example, President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The education law was a milestone for national standardized testing.
For Wood, and teachers across Massachusetts, it meant students would need to take the MCAS every year, in third through eighth grades, in reading and math — plus science in some grades. And for schools, the new law brought harsher consequences for low scores.
Still, Massachusetts students were ranking quite well.
“MCAS really changed the environment completely,” says Jamie Gass, director of the Pioneer Institute’s Center for School Reform. “And it really was the equivalent of the difference between a pilot who’s flying with no instrumentation and one that has very detailed instrumentation and analysis in front of them.”
Gass credits MCAS for the state’s success on national and even international measures.
By 2005, Massachusetts students were scoring at the top of the national standardized tests known as NAEP. And by 2007, they were ranking high internationally in math and science.
“I think that the success on NAEP is really the equivalent of winning the World Series five times in a row and doing it four straight games each time,” says Gass. “But then the international competition is like winning Olympic gold medals. It’s a remarkable accomplishment.”
But the accomplishment hasn’t been universal. Generally speaking, the wealthier and whiter the family, the higher their children are likely to score on these tests. Tests that students must take to graduate.
And critics, like Center for Collaborative Education’s French, say the high-stakes nature of the tests makes such achievement gaps worse.
“You should never make significant decisions about a student based on one single on-demand paper and pencil test. That’s what we do in Massachusetts,” says French. “I might argue that’s one reason why we continue to have some of the widest equity gaps in the nation amongst all states by race, by income and by language.”
And Then Came … Common Core
The drive for more testing, and more standards, didn’t end with No Child Left Behind.
In the mid-2000s, Achieve Inc., a Washington, D.C., think tank led by governors and business leaders, along with the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), developed a new set of standards to measure students’ college and career readiness. With millions of dollars from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with other support, by 2008 these groups had rallied many influential educators and politicians in support of the new standards, which came to be known as the Common Core.
By 2010, several states across the nation, including Massachusetts, had adopted the Common Core standards and applied for grants from the U.S. Department of Education to develop new tests based on Common Core.
In September 2010, Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester worked with officials from Louisiana and Florida to create the PARCC consortium, intended to develop and pilot such tests. In January 2011, the PARCC consortium received about $186 million in federal funding to create the assessment.
Achieve Inc., the small think tank behind the Common Core standards, was subsequently named the PARCC project manager — meaning it first created the standards for schools across the nation and was then also charged with creating a test to determine whether students can graduate.
In 2014, a new nonprofit, PARCC Inc., spun off from Achieve Inc. to serve as the PARCC project manager. It has many of the same names and faces in leadership positions. Meanwhile Pearson, the largest education company in the world, was given the sole contract to deliver the PARCC tests.
Chester is now the chair of the governing board that oversees PARCC. He has repeatedly rebuffed complaints that the position creates a conflict of interest with his role in recommending a new test for Massachusetts.
Last week, he made that recommendation: neither MCAS, the state’s longstanding test, nor PARCC, the test he has supervised in development. Instead, he proposes a new, hybrid test, a “new MCAS” based largely on PARCC.
So What’s Next?
The PARCC test is designed to measure critical thinking. It’s meant to be taken online, and it’s timed. Massachusetts districts began piloting the test in 2013.
Other states have been using it too, but most have abandoned PARCC, citing politics, cost or technology hurdles. The PARCC consortium began with 24 states and the District of Columbia committed to using the test. In 2016, just six states and D.C. now plan to use it.
On Tuesday, the Massachusetts board of education will choose whether to stick with the state’s current MCAS or switch to Chester’s proposed new hybrid, which would have to be developed at an as-yet-unknown additional cost.
Massachusetts PARCC advocates say the test is a better measure of modern skills. MCAS backers say MCAS is the tool that has gotten Massachusetts students to the top of nationwide rankings.
Teacher Wood doesn’t know what the board will do. But she does know what she wants her students to learn.
“You want students to reason through all of these ideas that make up the essential questions of life: What’s worth fighting for? How important is status? Can a dream change the world?” says Wood. “And a test — a test is a test. It doesn’t change the world, it just tests abilities. So how do we come to a marriage of the two needs?”