How to Maintain the Massachusetts “Education Miracle”

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Not by using Common Core-based standards and tests, for sure, or anything that looks like them.

The English language arts and mathematics standards dumped by the Governor Patrick-appointed Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in July 2010 are nothing like Common Core’s standards. Unlike Common Core’s standards, which are not designed to prepare American high school students for authentic college coursework, the Commonwealth’s previous standards accelerated the academic achievement of minority groups in the state and did prepare our grade 10 students for authentic college coursework.

Yet, Massachusetts parents, legislators, and teachers have been regularly told for five years that standards cleverly labeled “college and career ready” are better than those they replaced because the old ones didn’t prepare our students for authentic college coursework, just for a high school diploma.  The facts tell otherwise.

We know that achievement on the grade 10 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) was related to authentic college readiness from a report relating our high school students’ performance on their grade 10 MCAS to the type of public college they enrolled in after graduation in 2005 and the extent of remedial coursework they needed. (See the Massachusetts School-to-College Report: High School Class of 2005, issued in February 2008.)  Almost all the students at the Advanced level and about 80% of the students at the Proficient level who had enrolled in four-year public colleges and universities in the Bay State in 2005 needed no remediation in mathematics or reading.  They were college-ready as well as high-school diploma-ready, whether or not they took a mathematics course in their senior year of high school (which the report doesn’t tell us).  That is exactly the way the system should work.

On the other hand, about half of the 2005 high school graduating students who had enrolled in a Massachusetts community college in 2005 and had earlier been placed at the Needs Improvement level on a grade 10 MCAS test needed remediation in mathematics, reading, or both.  (Again, we don’t know if they had taken a mathematics course in their senior year of high school or tried in other ways to improve their academic records in their junior and senior years of high school.)  Sounds completely rational.

Yet, the Patrick-appointed Board of Elementary and Secondary Education decided in July 2010 that students enrolling in a state college after graduation from high school should not be required to take any college course without college credit if they passed a grade 11 test deeming them “college ready.”   In other words, no placement test or enrollment in a non-credit-bearing developmental course in reading or mathematics.  For reasons best known to themselves, Board members decided that college freshman students judged as needing improvement at the end of grade 10 must be given credit for the college courses they take, whether or not they try to make themselves more academically ready for them in their last two years of high school.

Clearly, their actual “college-readiness” from 2015 on depends on the academic quality and rigor of this grade 11 “college readiness” test, about to be given in Massachusetts high schools for the first time in 2015.  Yet, we know from many mathematicians (e.g., R. James Milgram of Stanford, Marina Ratner of Berkeley, Jason Zimba of Bennington) that Common Core’s mathematics standards do not prepare students for STEM careers—the jobs of the 21stcentury.  And it is obvious to anyone who compares the reading passages used over the years on the grade 10 MCAS in English language arts with the sample reading passages for the grade 11 Common Core-based reading test that the overall reading level of the passages on the latter test is not higher than the overall reading level of the passages on the grade 10 MCAS test.   In other words, the 2015 Common Core-based test won’t tell us whether students who would have been judged as “needing improvement” under MCAS are really ready for college.

So who are the chief victims of this gross public deception?  Minority students, especially African-American students. They are the students for whom Common Core’s standards and tests were created in order to label them college-ready when they weren’t. In the 2005 report, they were featured as having lower “persistence” rates than most other demographic groups, as having a lower Grade Point Average (GPA) than Asian/Pacific Islanders (2.5 to 2.8), and as earning a lower number of credits on average during their first year of college than Asian/Pacific Islanders (22.7 to 27.1).  Yet, the report notes that more than 80% of all students in the 2005 school-to-college cohort remained enrolled for a second year of college in 2006.

But we find no commendations for their persistence and their college-going rates in the report. Readers are left to infer that the only solution to the “gaps” in demographic performance between African-American students and Asian/Pacific Islanders is to reduce the academic demands of the high school curriculum for all students and to give all students in grade 11 an easier test (or at least a test that is no harder) than the MCAS tests given in grade 10.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  With at best half of the districts (and even a lower percentage of the schools) so far adopting the PARCC tests, there still is time to reject this recurrence of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”  It’s time to restore the standards that actually helped make all Massachusetts students better prepared for high school and for college.