Massachusetts education officials are set to decide next month whether to abandon the 17-year-old MCAS exam as the state’s student testing program in favor of the newer, Common Core-aligned PARCC, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers assessment.
While the prospect of retiring the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System is causing some trepidation in a state with the highest student achievement in the country — why fix what doesn't seem to be broken? — adopting PARCC promises to provide even better educational results for Massachusetts students. PARCC aligns with the Common Core national academic standards, diminishes the need for "teaching to the test," and provides more accurate assessments of student progress.
The computer-based PARCC and the Common Core have been an explosive political combination in this era of rising opposition to high-stakes testing and to the federal government's role in education policy. Even as officials consider whether to switch tests, proponents of a 2016 ballot question to opt out of the Common Core are gathering signatures. PARCC has become so politicized that many states are dropping out: Only seven states and Washington, D.C., will use the tests in 2016, down from 26 that had originally signed up a few years ago. In Massachusetts, meanwhile, a prominent teachers' union is seeking a moratorium on standardized testing.
But whether to discontinue standardized testing is not the question before the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education next month. Nor is the board deciding whether to abandon the Common Core. The education policy question it faces is more straightforward: Is PARCC a higher-quality test that offers a better gauge of a student's mastery of the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century? Does PARCC represent the next-generation assessment that the Commonwealth's students deserve?
Indeed, it does. For many reasons, the state should adopt it:
PARCC has Massachusetts' stamp on it. The state was deeply involved in developing the new assessment. Hundreds of Massachusetts educators participated in every step of the test development process.
One of the main goals of Common Core is to get students to grapple with more complex material. PARCC does that. "We don't want students to be able to just guess" the answer, says PARCC Inc.'s chief of assessment, Jeff Nellhaus; instead, students are asked to explain their answers, showing reasoning and critical thinking skills. PARCC tests both reading and writing at every grade level from 3 to 11, while MCAS only tests writing at 4, 7, and 10. "The PARCC writing tasks are also different from MCAS writing tasks in that they require students to derive evidence from texts to support their points of view in the essays they are asked to write — what you do in college and on the job," says Nellhaus.
With PARCC, there's less incentive to "teach to the test." Critics often complain that standardized testing pressures teachers into narrowing the curriculum to material covered by the exams. But with PARCC, good instruction should be the best and only necessary test preparation. The PARCC exam emphasizes open-ended questions that require students to compare, argue, and explain the reasoning behind their written answers. "The only prepping for PARCC is great teaching," says Lindsay Sobel, executive director of Teach Plus, a teacher leadership nonprofit.
Teachers prefer PARCC. A survey of Massachusetts teachers reported that 72 percent of them believe PARCC is a higher quality test when compared to MCAS.
While MCAS has been a key tool to increase accountability in Massachusetts schools, it is also showing its age. For one thing, it's now clear that too many students pass the test but still lack proficiency. Of Massachusetts public high school graduates who enroll in the state's higher-education system, nearly 40 percent have to take at least one remedial class.
There is, in fact, a third option. In Louisiana, Governor Bobby Jindal fiercely opposes the federal government stepping into state education, and issued an executive order to repeal Common Core. Consequently, PARCC was dropped. But in a compromise — which implicitly recognizes the strengths of PARCC — the state is now developing a new assessment through a contractor that is sourcing questions from PARCC tests. So Louisiana is getting PARCC anyway, just by a different name.
Massachusetts could follow that approach, which would allow state education officials to claim they have kept MCAS. Still, the resulting test would probably look a lot like PARCC, and the state would almost certainly have to pay more. The state should not spend money needlessly just so Governor Charlie Baker and his administration have political cover from PARCC's opponents.
A standardized test isn't, and shouldn't be, the only measure of a student's academic achievement or a school's effectiveness. But tests are an important tool in ensuring that students receive the best education possible. That's why Massachusetts should have the best test possible — and ignore the political noise.