Patriot Ledger: TOM BIRMINGHAM: Plan to scrap MCAS is a race to the middle

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Read this op-ed in The Patriot Ledger, where it was originally published on March 14, 2015

Since adopting the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test, student achievement in Massachusetts has become the envy of the nation and among the best in the world. It is a record that hardly merits scrapping the test, particularly for one that is likely to be less effective at preparing students for college and careers.

Beginning in 2005, the commonwealth’s students have scored first in the nation in every subject at every grade tested on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card.

American students as a whole fail to measure up against their high-performing international peers. But when Massachusetts students participated in Trends in International Math and Science Study assessments in 2007 and 2013, they were more than competitive. In 2007, our eighth-graders even tied for first in the world in math.

In 2013 Massachusetts also participated in the Program for International Student Assessment that assessed workforce readiness and problem-solving skills among 15-year-olds. In math, science and reading, the commonwealth significantly outperformed its peers and the national average. In math, Massachusetts was in the same performance bracket as Finland, Austria, Canada and Germany. In reading, our students trailed only Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

There is little to indicate that switching to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test would improve or even match this record. In English language arts, the so-called Common Core standards on which the tests are based would reduce the amount of classic literature, poetry and drama that Massachusetts students study by about 60 percent.

A distinguished presidential panel found that Algebra I is the key to advanced math study and recommended that students study it in eighth grade, as currently occurs under Massachusetts’ state standards. But Common Core would delay Algebra I until early in 10th grade, preventing students from reaching high levels of math in high school.

Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers advocates argue that the tests would better prepare students for college and careers. But Common Core ends with “Algebra II lite,” which is insufficient for students aiming for college majors in science, technology, engineering or math.

In 2008, the Board of Higher Education’s “Massachusetts School-to-College Report” made clear the very strong correlation between MCAS performance and both college success and the avoidance of remediation in higher education.

Common Core would create a “race to the middle.” There is no point in having a national standard unless students in all states can realistically be expected to reach that level. National Assessment of Educational Progress results indicate that there is no way that students in low-performing states like Arkansas and New Mexico could pass a test at the level of their Massachusetts counterparts, which would create downward pressure on Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers’ rigor.

Advocates of Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and Common Core argue that Massachusetts can use the 15 percent of the standards that states can tailor to their own needs to increase the curriculum’s rigor. But the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test will not include Massachusetts’ 15 percent. What isn’t tested isn’t taught, and while Massachusetts could strengthen the standards slightly, the commonwealth’s students would still be taking the same test as their lower-performing peers.

Student performance in Massachusetts skyrocketed following passage of the landmark 1993 Education Reform Act. At its heart was a grand bargain: a massive infusion of new state money in return for high standards and accountability. Both were necessary to achieve success.

Massachusetts had an honest debate about the funding issue and decided to address it by spending more state dollars in poorer school districts. But many low-performing states spend far less than Massachusetts does on education, and to my knowledge nobody is supporting massive funding increases for education in states like New Mexico and Arkansas.

Instead of hitting the restart button on education reform, Massachusetts should focus on making MCAS even more effective. In the late 1990s, funding for MCAS remediation reached $50 million. Today, that line item has shrunk to $9 million. Providing help to struggling students would further improve college and career readiness and is just the right thing to do.

MCAS has been one of the key reasons for Massachusetts’ historic K-12 public education success over the last two decades. Let’s work to build on MCAS, not replace it with national standards and testing that show little promise of replicating its success.

Tom Birmingham is the Distinguished Senior Fellow in Education at Pioneer Institute and the co-author of the landmark Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993.