Nothing to fear but lower student achievement…

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Did anyone actually think that during a campaign season the MCAS debate would come back in full force? It’s odd, given the strong public support for the test, but it is happening.

And in the tradition of the Good Ol’ American Way, money is driving the debate.

The feds are promoting national math and English/reading standards for K-12 schools by offering $320 million, perhaps split among two groups, for the development of the standards and the assessments. A Globe editorial entitled Nothing to Fear in Experiment to Improve Testing opines today that Massachusetts has, academically, nothing to lose if it abandons the MCAS because

There is a greater likelihood that the exam that measures student achievement in Massachusetts will go national than go away.

It argues that Massachusetts’ signing on to participate in the creation of national assessments to match up with national standards “is merely a competition to conduct a four-year research and development project.” The argument of the editorial relies on three assertions:

1) The major risk is that Massachusetts education officials might get overwhelmed by their counterparts in other states who take a less rigorous approach to education.
2) there is no evidence to believe that Massachusetts is on the verge of abandoning its high academic standards or its rigorous testing program.
3) Massachusetts “can walk away at any time” and apply what good they’ve learned to the existing MCAS program.

Let’s take these points in order. From the start of the development of national standards, the drafts have been really weak and framed by a skills ideology—what are called the College and Career Readiness Standards. The latest drafts were still much weaker than Massachusetts’ – and in fact the standards of a number of states. So the feds, in order to create a uniform set of standards and assessments for the country, are willing to insist that high-performing states regress to the mean.

On the second point, the administration has stuck itself way beyond thinking about whether it is going to adopt the standards.

  • Governor Patrick and Ed Commissioner Chester signed the MOU to participate in the CCSSI/national standards efforts, and
  • They included very pro-national standards language in the MA application already with their original application (including the very weak January drafts of the national standards as appendices to the MA application).

But the Education Secretary and Commish have also said that they will not adopt weaker standards, right? Right. So how do you square that circle?

The answer to that turns on the assertion in today’s Globe editorial that the state can just walk away. I think that isn’t true. Consider a memo issued by the Education Commissioner for the Board to approve on May 25, which states that MA will in effect jettison its current nation-leading academic standards by a Board vote by August 2 or at a Special Board of Education meeting on August 2. Thing is, folks, even if the Board chooses not to take this action (highly unlikely because the Governor controls the Board now), by participating in the creation of national assessments Massachusetts will have to adopt CC’s “college and career readiness standards” by the end of December 2011.

How do we know that? See the feds’ FAQ:

To be eligible to receive an award under this category, an eligible applicant must submit assurances from each State in the consortium that, to remain in the consortium, the State will adopt a common set of college- and career-ready standards (as defined in the NIA) no later than December 31, 2011, and common achievement standards (as defined in the NIA) no later than the 2014-2015 school year.

As we noted in our report The Emperor’s New Clothes, which we released yesterday,

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, led by Florida, Massachusetts, and Louisiana, will be managed by Achieve, headed by Michael Cohen. To be eligible for bidding on these grants, a consortium must include at least 15 member states, five of which as so-called “governing states” cannot belong to more than one consortium and are committed to using the assessment system developed by the consortium.

This is not an R&D project. There are clear commitments and assurances that the state must give. Backing off later will require a major loss of face for the state and political leaders — and when was the last time you saw our leaders face that sort of thing?

Fear is often caused by the unknown. Here we lack no knowledge of what is going on. This is like watching a slow train wreck.

Crossposted at “Rock the Schoolhouse” blog.