From the Connecticut River Valley to Beacon Hill, a growing chorus of Bay Staters — teachers, parents, school administrators, and even elected officials — are speaking out against Common Core and its aligned PARCC test, but it’s uncertain if there’s enough resistance to stop it.
The opposition starts with proposed legislation, sponsored by State Rep. Marjorie Decker (D-Cambridge), which prohibits the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) from using the PARCC exam for three years and, instead, instructs schools to continue administering the homegrown, 17-year-old MCAS test.
The bill, co-sponsored by more than 50 state representatives and senators, would also remove a current requirement in which tenth grade students must achieve a specified minimum MCAS score to qualify for a high school diploma. In addition, teachers and school administrators would not be held accountable for their students’ MCAS results.
“We need to take a breath and pause before adding another layer of standardized testing in PARCC,” Decker said. “We need to have a much more thoughtful conversation about what’s happening, who’s falling behind, and why we haven’t moved the needle significantly for low-income students.”
Yet for Decker and her co-sponsors, the proposed bill might be too late.
The Massachusetts Board of Education is expected to vote this fall on which standardized test to use — PARCC or MCAS — and it might come long before Decker’s bill is voted on by either the Joint Committee on Education or the full state legislature, said Angela Hall, a committee spokeswoman on Beacon Hill.
“The Secretary of Education [James Peyser] would be quite foolish to flout the authority of the chair [Rep. Alice Peisch, D-Wellesley] of the Joint Education Committee,” said Tom Birmingham, a former president of the Massachusetts state senate. This is especially true, he said, if the committee or state legislature votes for the moratorium on PARCC.
“I would hope that through this legislation, [the Board of Education] would see there’s a really public vehicle and public conversation about the path we’re on and make their decisions accordingly,” Decker said.
PARCC, an acronym for Partner-ship for Assessment for Readiness of College and Careers, is a private, non-profit consortium started with a $170 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to create a new Common Core-based standardized test for elementary and secondary public school students in the United States. PARCC is working with Pearson PLC, a nearly $8 billion British multi-national publishing corporation, to develop and finalize the new standardized test, which, in theory, would be adopted by states remaining in the PARCC consortium.
The History of Massachusetts and Common Core
The Massachusetts Board of Education (BOE) voted to adopt Common Core in July 2010, essentially scrapping the Massachusetts Education Reform Act, which was passed in both houses of the state legislature and signed by then-Gov. William Weld in 1993. The BOE sets policies for the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), which oversees all Massachusetts elementary and secondary public schools.
Commissioner Mitchell Chester, head of DESE, then-Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville, and then-Gov. Deval Patrick supported the 11-member Board’s vote, saying Common Core would reduce the number of Massachusetts high school graduates requiring remedial math and English classes in college.
The issue, however, was never put to a vote before the state legislature.
Instead, DESE applied for a $250 million Race to the Top grant from the U. S. Department of Education (DOE) to implement Common Core across the state’s public schools.
“I don’t know if individual legislators are upset about how Common Core came about, but I think they would be entitled to be angry,” said Birmingham, a co-sponsor of the 1993 Education Reform Act. “It was a complete end-run around the legislature.”
Issues facing Decker’s bill include its legality and the possible threat it poses to federal government money the state uses to fund schools.
Nearly a year ago, Assistant U. S. Education Secretary Deborah Delisle wrote Chester, informing him that Massachusetts is required under federal law to administer a standardized test — one that is aligned with Common Core K-12 educational standards — during the 2015-2016 academic year. Only the PARCC test is aligned with Common Core and meets the federal law’s requirement, Chester says.
If the Bay State doesn’t comply, $200 million from the DOE could be forfeited, Chester says. However, based on recent history, it’s uncertain whether the DOE will carry out that threat. Last year, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that only its state legislature — not Oklahoma’s Board of Education — could decide if the state’s public schools could adopt Common Core. Similar to Massachusetts, only Oklahoma’s Board of Education voted for Common Core, not its state legislature.
While Oklahoma’s Supreme Court ruling received a swift, negative response from the DOE — essentially threatening to withhold federal money — the department soon reversed itself, saying Oklahoma qualified for federal funds after all.
Bay State Resistance
Although national pushback against Common Core is increasing, a slim majority of adults – 53% — support the framework while 26% are opposed, according to a poll in Education Next, a journal published at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government.
It’s difficult to pinpoint Massachusetts residents’ overall opinion on Common Core. The state hasn’t seen protests like New York and New Jersey, where more than 200,000 students across both states refused to take a Common Core-aligned test this past spring, nor has it witnessed what happened in Seattle earlier this year, when all 280 juniors at Nathan Hale High School refused to sit for their exam aligned with the new standards.
In addition to the Decker bill, Massachusetts Common Core resistance includes 13 cities and towns (Abington, Brookfield, Cambridge, Halifax, Hampden, Hanson, Holland, Lakeville, Norfolk, Orange, Tewksbury, Uxbridge and Whitman) that have adopted non-binding resolutions against the new standards during their annual town meetings. These actions have no legal authority, reflecting only the feelings of the participants attending the meetings. In addition, three school committees — Tantasqua, Worcester and Amherst-Pelham — also voted against Common Core through non-binding resolutions.
In western Massachusetts this year, Marc Ducey, chairman of the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional District School Committee, lost an election to William Bontempi, who ran on an anti-Common Core platform.
And 16 school districts have formed the Western Massachusetts Education Leaders Coalition, which sent a petition to DESE’s Chester, members of the Board of Education, and Gov. Charlie Baker, saying the PARCC exam is “being implemented without adequate funding and technology” and “without enough involvement from Massachusetts educators and ahead of (School) Districts’ capacity to implement new curriculum standards.” The coalition is also asking Chester to share the results of the 2013-2014 PARCC test, which was piloted in some Bay State school districts for the first time during that academic year.
“We’re not opposed to accountability and standards, but the amount of standardized testing is costly and interrupts teaching and learning, and that’s our primary mission,” said Martin O’Shea, superintendent of the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District, who also chairs the coalition.
The petition, sent in December, has yet to garner a response, said Todd Gazda, Ludlow School District Superintendent.
Last month, the grassroots Common Core Forum, consisting of parents and educators, called for a referendum on the new standards. Donna Colorio, who leads the organization, said she and her members want Massachusetts to return to the K-12 educational standards used prior to Common Core.
Meanwhile, interest groups, such as the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Fair Test, and Citizens for Public Schools, have rallied support for State Rep. Decker’s proposed bill and against the new standards.
What’s the fuss?
Frederick Hess, an Education Next executive editor, says the genesis of negative reaction to Common Core across the country sprung from its implementation — via only a vote by states’ Boards of Education and not their legislatures.
“People [in many states] feel like the wool’s been pulled over their eyes, and they’re not going to judge it with a measure of equanimity, but with a measure of suspicion and ill will,” he said. “And when [Common Core] advocates responded by saying, ‘You don’t understand,’ they put gasoline on the fire.”
Those feelings forced many states to drop out of PARCC, a nine-state consortium developing the test for Massachusetts and other member states. A 26-state consortium just five years ago, Hess said it’s possible membership could drop to seven.
Should Decker’s bill become law, the move would be disconcerting for DESE’s Chester, given he’s also chairman of the PARCC Governing Board. Some have questioned whether that role is a conflict of interest given Chester is state DESE commissioner while also overseeing development of the PARCC exam. Paul Sagan, chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education, says it isn’t. During recent public forum meetings in Springfield and Lynn, Sagan said that Chester serves on the PARCC board at the behest of Massachusetts. Chester is only compensated for his work as Massachusetts’ education commissioner, Sagan said, and, therefore, there is no conflict of interest.
Because so much controversy surrounds PARCC, Gov. Baker ordered the state’s Board of Education to hold five public forums around the Commonwealth to hear testimony from parents, teachers, students, school administrators, current and former state government officials, and curriculum experts about the new test and Common Core.
During a Lynn forum, one parent — who’s also a software and electrical engineer — testified how under Common Core, elements of math instruction are pushed back to later grades compared to previous Massachusetts standards.
“As an engineer, I can tell you there is a defined set of topics a child or student needs to learn before taking Algebra,” said Valerie Mollo of Wilmington, the mother of a fifth grader. “By pushing topics off the plate year after year after year the way Common Core does, it’s going to push Algebra out for these students to the ninth grade. For any student who wants to pursue a STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Math] degree, this will hurt their chances greatly.”
Additional resistance to PARCC stems from the cost school districts will incur in order to administer the test, which is taken on computers. Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, estimates the cost at “tens of millions of dollars.”
“Seventy-five million dollars,” noted State Rep. Keiko Orrall (R-Lakeville), citing a number she said was given to her by Commissioner Chester.
The cost doesn’t involve simply updating a school’s software and hardware, it also entails hours of labor to ensure a district’s digital systems are working properly and fund teacher training, Scott said. When asked if the taxpayers in individual school districts will pay for these updates, he noted: “The money is going to have to come from somewhere.”
“If we move forward with this initiative, not every [school district] will be on the same page,” Orrall said at the Board of Education’s Bridgewater forum. “This is a justice issue, a fairness issue, and there are some districts that are wealthier than others. The reality is we can’t ensure, across the board, that people will be able to afford this new initiative.”
Orrall also noted that Chester has yet to fulfill her request for a spreadsheet detailing what it will cost each school district to improve its systems for PARCC. Jacqueline Reis, Chester’s spokesperson, couldn’t confirm what the statewide cost would be to ready school districts for the PARCC.
Observations On Digital PARCC
Kalpana Guttman, Newton elementary school literacy specialist, a former fourth grade teacher, and her school’s PARCC administrator, noticed something different when third graders took the computerized version of the PARCC test this year.
“We’ve been giving the MCAS for years and we haven’t had kids coming to pieces when they were taking these tests [on pencil and paper],” she said. “We had children falling apart taking these tests [on the computer].”
Questions on the sample version of the digital PARCC test seemed so convoluted, Guttman asked her Ph.D. husband to complete the sample fourth grade English test, just to check her observations. He noticed that one question asked him to write an essay about the common theme of two passages. Yet they didn’t have a theme in common, he said, so he wasn’t sure if he was expected to write one essay or two, Guttman reported. “Now what’s really odd is that the test is supposed to make you career and college ready, but there is not one career I can think of in which you’re expected to read multiple texts in a window this size,” she added, showing that on a computer screen, the window was about 1 inch in height.
Common Core critics are also concerned that students’ PARCC scores will be used to determine teacher competence.
“If you look at the research, teacher effectiveness only accounts for 10% to 15% of student performance, so more than half of what determines student performance happens outside the school walls,” said Anthony Cody, a former Oakland, Calif., middle school math and science teacher, and author of the book, The Educator And The Oligarch: A Teacher Challenges The Gates Foundation.
“It includes the home life of the kids, parental education, whether or not they’re living in poverty — those items are the lion’s share of what determines student achievement,” he said, noting children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds do better on standardized tests than their peers in lower-income households.
Cody also noted standardized tests make some teachers “game the system and only teach for the test.”
Making the Grade
PARCC opponents also dislike the assertion that Pearson advertised for part-time test-graders by posting ads on Craigslist.
“[Test grading is] seasonal work,” Educational Next’s Hess said. “So Pearson needs seasonal employees to grade it. It’s kind of like the way stores staff up for the Christmas season. You’re not going to find highly skilled professionals waiting to be hired for eight to 12 weeks to grade these tests. So how are you going to find them? Through Craigslist and help wanted ads.”
baystateparent reached out to Pearson for confirmation on this and other issues, but calls were not returned.
Who’s Who In Massachusetts Education Officials
Unless you work in education, there’s a good chance your knowledge of education officials doesn’t extend beyond your child’s principal or your district’s School Committee. Yet there are many key players when it comes to setting the curriculum and policies for Massachusetts public schools, all of which will have a direct impact on your child.
Here’s a cheat sheet of key officials, boards, and departments you should know:
Mitchell Chester, commissioner of state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), was appointed to the job in 2008 by then Gov. Deval Patrick. He reports to the Board of Education and the Secretary of Education. Chester leads DESE, which oversees all of the Commonwealth’s public K-12 schools. Chester is secretary to the Massachusetts Board of Education and is not allowed to vote on any issues facing the Board.
The Massachusetts Board of Education sets the policies DESE will follow and implement in K-12 schools. The 11-member Board is led by Paul Sagan, who works full-time at General Catalyst Partners, a venture capital firm that funds start-up companies. His position with the board is unpaid. Sagan was appointed to the Board by Gov. Charlie Baker. Members of the Board of Education are appointed by the governor for five-year terms. No member of the Board can serve for more than two terms, or 10 years.
James Peyser was appointed Secretary of Education by Gov. Baker and reports to him in this cabinet position. Prior to becoming secretary of education, a full-time position, he led the Massachusetts Board of Education as its chairman from 1999 – 2006. He also worked for the New Schools Venture Fund, which raised and directed $150 million to more than 300 charter schools around the country. Charter schools are public schools.