Opinion

jim stergios

PARCC doesn’t cut it; stick with MCAS

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MCAS culminates in a 10th-grade competency test. To make students “college- and career-ready,” critics say, the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education should scrap MCAS and require Massachusetts high school students to take tests developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

The claim doesn’t square with the facts.

In 2008, the Board of Higher Education’s “Massachusetts School-to-College Report” found that performance on MCAS, or the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, correlated with higher-education success and the avoidance of remediation in college. Last week, an apples-to-apples examination of the tests conducted by Princeton-based researchers found PARCC no more predictive of college readiness than MCAS.

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MCAS is unique in the nation in how it closely tracks student performance on NAEP, the country’s national assessment. Unlike other states, Massachusetts never inflated fourth- and eighth-grade MCAS results, which in 2013 were nearly identical to those on NAEP.

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But that same year, a lopsided 80 percent of Massachusetts students scored “advanced” or “proficient” on 10th-grade MCAS, compared to 34 percent on NAEP. At best, the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has neglected the rigor of the 10th-grade MCAS, and at worst succumbed to the unhappy practices of other states.

Yet despite this “rigor gap,” PARCC is still no better at predicting college preparedness than a dumbed-down 10th-grade MCAS.

PARCC is time intensive. The state’s landmark 1993 Education Reform Act required standardized testing in a handful of grades. The 2001 federal No Child Left Behind Act roughly doubled the number of grades subject to testing. This past year, PARCC doubled and even tripled time allotted for each grade’s English Language Arts and mathematics tests.

Yoking the Commonwealth to the faltering PARCC consortium, which once boasted 26 member states but today includes just seven low performers, carries real risk. With the number of potential test-takers in these states falling from 30 million to under five million, PARCC may no longer be viable and cannot maintain its current pricing.

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Because students in PARCC jurisdictions like Washington, D.C., and New Mexico cannot pass tests at the level of their Massachusetts counterparts, there will be built-in pressure to reduce PARCC’s rigor. Some states have already lowered their passing scores.

Finally, adopting PARCC locks Massachusetts, the nation’s education leader, into inferior education standards. Common Core may help some low-performing states, but it is too low a bar for Massachusetts.

Stanford University mathematician R. James Milgram resigned his post as principal mathematics expert on Common Core’s validation committee, disgusted that the final standards delay the study of Algebra 1 by one to two years and reach no higher than a weak Algebra 2 course.

That’s insufficient to prepare students for college science, technology, or engineering majors — and far below the level once required in Massachusetts. PARCC backers, like state Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester, who doubles as chair of PARCC’s governing board, claim Massachusetts can supplement the Common Core with higher-order math or great literature.

That demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of standards-based reform. PARCC tests the elements of Common Core shared by all states, not the supplemental math or higher-level reading individual states may add. Given that over time what isn’t tested isn’t taught, PARCC represents a race to the middle for Massachusetts.

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Massachusetts’ students top national rankings and are highly competitive on international tests. Our success is a function of significant investment and a commitment to high liberal arts-based standards and accountability.

Adopting PARCC locks Massachusetts into inferior education standards.

Rather than tying our fates to low-performing states, retaining MCAS — with its 10th-grade rigor restored — is the clear choice when the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education votes next month.

Jim Stergios is executive director of Pioneer Institute.