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    The Podium

    Are our students ready for college?

    Massachusetts’s chief economic asset in the global economy is its unparalleled brain trust — the preparation and production of a highly educated citizenry and workforce. As a national leader in education, the Commonwealth has seen its elementary and secondary students rise to the occasion time and again with increased rates of proficiency on state and national exams.

    But beneath the surface of this strong student performance, a more nuanced picture emerges. Nearly 36 percent of Massachusetts’s public high school graduates who enroll at one of the state’s public colleges or universities — including 65 percent of all community college students — place into one or more noncredit-bearing, remedial courses. Achievement gaps between students of color and white students are higher than the national average, as are the gaps between the college enrollment rates of students of color and white students. In a state where 72 percent of the jobs will require college degrees or training by 2020, the fact that so many students are deemed unprepared for college should set off alarms.

    Educators need new assessment tools that guide them in instituting earlier and more effective interventions to support struggling students. Over the past decade, we have learned a lot about learning progressions and expectations for what students need to be prepared for college and careers. More recently, teams of K-12 educators and college faculty have worked together to create the state’s first joint definition of what it means to be truly ready for life after high school. With this foundation laid, it’s time to improve our testing program to reflect this new, shared standard for college and career readiness. MCAS, the state’s highly regarded assessment program, has served the Commonwealth well, but remains largely unchanged since its inception in 1998. But it was never intended to assess college and career readiness, only student proficiency at the K-12 level.


    Beginning this month, Massachusetts students in grades 3-11 are embarking on a two-year “test drive” of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a new computer-based assessment system that will help educators better gauge whether a student is ready for life after high school. A computer-based test will allow us to improve the ways that students can demonstrate academic knowledge and critical thinking, along with their application to real world situations. Computers will allow students to complete performance-based tasks that better measure the range of skills that colleges and employers say are necessary for students to acquire.

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    PARCC’s development is aligned with the Common Core State Standards in English language arts, literacy, and mathematics. Adopted in 2010, the standards are comprehensive, and academically demanding. We now need a new test capable of measuring student progress against these standards. PARCC has the potential to meet this goal.

    Will PARCC replace MCAS? Massachusetts has adopted a deliberate approach to determining whether PARCC can serve the Commonwealth’s goal of ensuring that all students have the academic preparation necessary to succeed after high school. A two-year “test drive” period will provide the state with time to work with school districts on securing funding to incorporate digital learning technologies, including the ability to administer online assessments. The results will inform our final decision in 2015 on whether to permanently replace MCAS with PARCC.

    PARCC provides a solid bridge from K-12 to higher education. It offers a much clearer understanding of whether a student is ready for college, and could also reduce the need for costly remedial programs. Massachusetts’s public colleges and universities are prepared to use student performance on PARCC as an indicator of students’ readiness for entry-level college courses, provided that the new standards meet expectations with regard to rigor and effectiveness. We believe that the work to upgrade teaching and learning and develop a 21st century assessment system aligned to our college and career ready standards is essential – to the aspirations of individual students and to the state which relies on the brainpower we produce.

    Mitchell Chester is the Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, and serves as National Chair of the PARCC Governing Board. Richard Freeland is the Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education, and serves as the co-chair of the PARCC Advisory Committee on College Readiness.