Andrea Gabor asks the million-dollar question: Why did Massachusetts, the most successful state in the nation on the National Assessment of Progress, drop its own finely honed standards and replace them with the untested Common Core standards? On one level, the answer is obvious: It wanted the money that come from Race to the Top. But at another level, this decision is not only puzzling but downright distressing. With the outstanding record of the students and teachers of Massachusetts, why in the world would policymakers take a chance on changing its successful system of standards and assessments? Of course, the $250 million that the state won is impressive, but no doubt the mandates that accompanied Race to the Top money very likely cost more than $250 million. From afar, it looks irresponsible. Even stranger is that the business community continues to complain about student performance when the performance of the public schools in Massachusetts is not only first in the nation but near the top of world rankings. What gives?
Is this just disruption for the sake of disruption?
Now the Massachusetts reforms are once again under assault by Common-Core enthusiasts. Strangely, many of those attacking the reforms are its erstwhile defenders. In February, the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, a leading advocacy group for the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act, issued the first of several reports that found, or are expected to find, the Bay State standards and an accompanying high-stakes test, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System or MCAS, wanting when compared to the still-untested “Common-Core aligned” PARCC tests (PARCC stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.)
“The current MCAS high school tests do not identify students who are college- and career-ready, and they do not contain the right content to measure college- and career-readiness,” concludes the MBAE study.
By contrast, the MBAE cautiously endorses the PARCC test: “As we are preparing this report in early 2015, the PARCC tests hold the promise of being a good indicator of college- and career-readiness.” (Emphasis added.)
In response, researchers from the Pioneer Institute, a market-oriented Massachusetts think thank, argue that money, once again, is playing an outsized role in the latest anti-MCAS research. The turncoats, according to Pioneer, include MBAE, which was cofounded by the aforementioned Paul Reville, as well as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Achieve Inc., both national Common-Core advocates. What these organizations all have in common is that they have receive funding– lots of it—from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which also invested over $200 million in developing the Common Core.
The most recent Massachusetts skirmish over the Common Core is no coincidence. This year, Massachusetts elementary and middle schools had the choice of taking the PARCC test or the MCAS. In the fall, Massachusetts will make a final decision about whether to ditch the MCAS entirely in favor of PARCC, at a time when half the states that initially agreed to adopt the Common-Core aligned test have since backed out.
In their OpEd, Charles Chieppo and Jamie Gass, detail the tangled web of relationships that tie the critics of the Massachusetts reforms to the Gates foundation, the PARCC tests and the Common Core. The OpEd is particularly scathing about the role of the MBAE:
“The Mass. Business Alliance study’s credibility was further compromised by the fact that its author is an adviser to PARCC. An earlier report from the Alliance — written by the senior education adviser to the giant testing company Pearson, which is near the top of a long list of entities that stand to gain from the switch to Common Core — was so bereft of intellectual integrity that it lifted an entire purported “case study” from The Boston Globe without attribution.”
However, the winner of the “conflict-of-interest derby,” according to Chieppo and Gass, is Teach Plus, a Boston-based national education-reform organization, which published a pro-PARCC report, “Massachusetts Teachers Examine PARCC“, in March:
The group recently released a study in which 23 of its fellows conclude that the commonwealth should ditch MCAS for PARCC. Teach Plus has received over $17 million from the Gates Foundation, including stipends for each of those 23 fellows.
The question now is whether Massachusetts will stick with its own test, MCAS, or whether it will switch to PARCC.
After each administration of MCAS, the questions and answers are released for public review. This is not the case with PARCC.
PARCC, by contrast, is a locked box, entirely controlled by Pearson, the testing giant that is developing the PARCC tests. It isn’t designed to be improved by educators over time, nor to help educators use the test to improve what or how they teach.
For now, at least in Massachusetts, the war over the Common Core will continue for at least a few months. Fordham Institute is expected to produce a study this summer examining the MCAS’s alignment to the Common Core; if its earlier support for the PARCC test is any indication, it too is likely to find against MCAS.
In Massachusetts, a final decision will be made by Mitchell Chester, the current education commissioner. Chester, it must be noted, also chairs PARCC’s governing board.
There you have it, folks. Conflicts of interest abound. Lots of money riding on the decision. And the person who will make the final decision as to which test will be used just happens to be the chair of the PARCC governing board. What do you think will happen?