If states earned medals for the accomplishment, Massachusetts would be awarded the gold for the way it transformed its K-12 public schools, making them some of the country’s best over the past 20 years. But that improvement has not come without controversy and critics.
Much of the progress is attributable to the state legislature and then-Gov. William Weld working together in the early ’90s to pass legislation that put more money into education; setting high standards; and, in 1998, introducing a new test, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), which measures the performance of students and teachers.
Now, two decades later, the rise of standardized testing and a nationwide educational framework known as Common Core are the hottest topics among the Commonwealth’s public school stakeholders: state and municipal officials, school superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, and the children. The Massachusetts test, and the children who will take it over the next 20 years, are at a crossroads, and few claim they can predict which path the state will choose and what that will mean for the students who will walk it.
Before Common Core
Common Core is an educational framework currently adopted by 40 states. Proponents say the standards (such as, “By the end of the school year, a kindergartener will be able to count 1 to 100”) better prepare students for the future workforce. Critics argue the series of grade-specific educational goals and ensuing testing force educators to change their unique curricula for the worse — “teaching to the test” — and place undue pressure on teachers and students.
But any economist examining American public schools before Common Core would have seen 50 different state educational standards, making them ripe for standardization because that reduces the possibility that a high school graduate competent in their home state, say, Arkansas, is a failure in another, like Massachusetts.
In economics, standardization usually refers to a uniform system of mass production that allows manufacturers to build the same product in multiple manufacturing plants, using the same processes.
More on standardized testing and Common Core in Massachusetts:
How does this relate to education? With Common Core adopted in about 80% of the country, it means that many of the nation’s 49 million public school children are receiving about the same education as the nearly 1 million public school children in Massachusetts, which adopted Common Core standards via a Massachusetts Board of Education (BOE) vote in 2010.
And while the Bay State had a strong assessment in its homegrown MCAS test, Frederick Hess, a faculty associate at Harvard’s Program on Education Policy, says parents in other states weren’t receiving reliable information about their schools’ performance because their tests weren’t as good as the MCAS. This, some economists might say, makes the entire public school system across all 50 states ripe for one standardized test.
But due to politics and parent uprisings across the country, that’s isn’t happening. Many states are putting together their own hybrid version of an annual standardized test, rejecting a well-known existing standardized test option: the Partnership for Assessment for Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). Nationwide, critics, education officials, and parents have slammed the PARCC for a variety of reasons, everything from saying it’s poorly written to the fact that it’s designed to be taken on a computer.
Facing an almost 20-year-old MCAS due for an overhaul, even the BOE, due to public anti-PARCC pressure, approved a compromise last November, voting for the creation of a hybrid standardized test dubbed “MCAS 2.0.” Slated to be first administered in 2017, officials say MCAS 2.0 will be composed of questions from the Commonwealth’s previous MCAS test with new ones from the PARCC. Massachusetts students currently undergo standardized testing starting in third grade, and it continues annually through eighth grade. In 10th grade, students must pass a test (currently the MCAS) to become eligible to receive their high school diploma upon the completion of 12th grade.
Another criticism of standardized testing is that while it aims to bring parity to the classroom, it actually penalizes students from low-income and disadvantaged families.
“When I became mayor [in 2006], I started seeing kids who passed all of their high school classes — spent 13 years in school — receive nothing more than a certificate of attendance at their graduation ceremony,” former New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang said. “They’re referred to as ‘non-qualifying completers’ because they finished high school but didn’t get their diploma — all because they didn’t score high enough on the 10th grade MCAS test.”
The result? “They’re basically high school dropouts,” he added, noting they’ll struggle to find decent-paying jobs and further their education, the polar opposite goal of Common Core.
According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) website, in 2006, New Bedford’s senior high school class included 939 students, of which 57.4% graduated, about 539 students, while 26 seniors were designated “non-qualifying completers.”
Last year, New Bedford’s senior high school class dropped to 554 students. Nearly 58% graduated, while 46 seniors were designated “non-qualifying completers,” DESE reports.
Fall River, Holyoke, Lawrence, and Springfield which, like New Bedford, have average household incomes of less than $40,000, also saw lower high school graduation rates for their 2015 high school senior classes, around 70%, compared to some of the state’s higher income communities and school districts, such as Dover-Sherborn, Medfield, Newton, Wellesley, and Weston. Those cities and towns boast average household incomes over $140,000 and saw at least 95% of their high school seniors receive a diploma in 2015.
The numbers may prove what many critics, like Lisa Guisbond, who runs Boston-based Citizens for Public Schools, say is true — standardized testing works against children from low-income households.
However, proponents point to another figure. Last year, the Bay State saw nearly 90% of its high school seniors graduate, a dramatic rise from nearly 80% in 2006.
Given this level of overall success, it seems unlikely that DESE, which oversees all Massachusetts public schools, or the BOE would stop requiring a test to determine whether public high school seniors are awarded their diplomas.
“The high school diploma awarded from a public school, because of the MCAS, isn’t weighted more heavily than the one from a private or parochial school,” Lang notes. “But the private school kid or one who went to a parochial school didn’t take a standardized test to earn their diploma.”
With Common Core
Since 2010, under President Barack Obama, “Race to the Top” funding from the U.S. Education Department (DOE) became available to state education departments provided they adopt Common Core standards for their public schools.
Unlike 1993, when there was a very loud and public debate about Massachusetts’s public schools, which led to legislation to improve them, there was little discussion prior to the July 2010 vote when the state BOE’s eight members unanimously approved Common Core. Massachusetts was awarded a $250 million “Race to the Top” grant in 2010.
DESE officials say Common Core is a set of “frameworks” — what it expects children to know — but not a curriculum determining what children will learn throughout each grade.
“People can say they want us to teach music and literature, but the 900-pound gorilla is the standardized test,” Ludlow School Superintendent Todd Gazda said, referring to its influence on curriculum and teaching. “It influences what you do.”
All Massachusetts public school children in grades 3-8 are judged as either “advanced,” “proficient” or “needs improvement” on English and math skills by their scores on the annual standardized test, which in some grades also includes science.
Who’s Serving Whom?
DESE’s charge, Commissioner Mitchell Chester says, is to make the Bay State’s public school children “college and career ready.”
Decades ago, Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote that “the economic system” is a decisive influence in education.
Since the Commonwealth’s largest employers include Partners Healthcare, with more than 60,000 employees; the University of Massachusetts (20,000); financial firm State Street Corp (11,000); and defense contractor Raytheon (10,000), Galbraith still seems right. Massachusetts needs educated citizens.
“The release of ‘A Nation at Risk’ in 1983 [a report from then-U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel Bell during the Reagan administration] marked a turning point in our educational system, and from that point on, we have seen an ever-escalating influence of corporate America on educational policies created by our federal and state legislatures,” Superintendent Gazda said. “This has shifted public education from working to create informed, well-rounded citizens to training individuals who will be good employees and meet the needs of corporate America.”
The irony, he says, is that the previous standards in public K – 12 education “gave us the individuals that put man on the moon, developed dramatic technological advances, and built our economic system and military industrial complex to one that made us the strongest, most powerful country in the world.”