Study: Poor Performance of Other States in PARCC Consortium Would Translate to Lower Standards for Mass.

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Attacks on MCAS for not producing “college-ready” graduates demonstrates lack of understanding of test’s purpose

BOSTON – Political realities dictate that, as with any tests, passing scores on those developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) will be set at a level that avoids having an unacceptable number of students fail.  Since Massachusetts is by far the highest performing of the states that remain in the PARCC consortium, the commonwealth’s K-12 education standards have the farthest to fall, according to a policy brief published by Pioneer Institute.

“If too many students fail to reach the new threshold and are denied diplomas, our education system seizes up,” said Dr. Richard P. Phelps, author of “Setting Academic Performance Standards: MCAS vs. PARCC.”

Massachusetts’ bar for scoring “proficient” on MCAS is currently the second highest in the nation for 4th grade math, third highest for 4th grade reading, fourth highest for 8th grade math and 23rd for 8th grade reading.  The composite rankings for rigor associated with definitions of proficiency in the 11 states that were still part of the PARCC consortium in August (it has since dropped to seven states and Washington, D.C.) was 27th in 4th grade math, 20.5 in 4th grade reading, 25.3 in 8th grade math and 25.1 in 8th grade reading.

In this case, the inevitable reversion to the mean would translate to a one-half year drop in performance expectations for 4th grade math and reading and 8th grade math in Massachusetts.

Phelps also dissects a 2015 report from the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education that claimed the national standards known as Common Core and the Common Core-aligned PARCC tests would raise the Commonwealth’s standards.

“If the goal was to raise standards, it could have been achieved without all the pain and expense associated with Common Core and PARCC by simply raising the passing grade on MCAS,” said Pioneer Executive Director Jim Stergios.

Phelps claims that criticizing MCAS tests because not everyone who passes them is “college-ready” demonstrates a lack of understanding of the tests’ purpose.  MCAS is a retrospective, standards-based achievement test designed to determine how well students have mastered the material included in Massachusetts’ K-12 education standards.

Determining college readiness requires an entirely different test – an aptitude or admission test designed to predict future performance.  Phelps says that if Massachusetts adopts PARCC, it’s unclear how the tests could serve as a high school exit examination.

Since federal legislation will allow anyone who scores “proficient” on PARCC tests to enroll in credit-bearing college coursework without taking a placement test, we won’t know if proficiency actually translates to college readiness.

If students are not college-ready as we currently define it, the result over time will be a drop in standards for entry-level college coursework.

About the Author

Dr. Richard P. Phelps is editor or author of four books: Correcting Fallacies about Educational and Psychological Testing (APA, 2008/2009); Standardized Testing Primer (Peter Lang, 2007); Defending Standardized Testing (Psychology Press, 2005); and Kill the Messenger (Transaction, 2003, 2005), and founder of the Nonpartisan Education Review (

About Pioneer

Pioneer Institute is an independent, non-partisan, privately funded research organization that seeks to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts through civic discourse and intellectually rigorous, data-driven public policy solutions based on free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government.