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Is Mass. Leading the Way to a More Cautious Route on Common Tests?

Massachusetts will take a wait-and-see approach to using common assessments, we learned yesterday. And that's saying a mouthful.

Because Massachusetts is a bellwether state in the standards-and-assessment world, its choices carry a lot of weight among educators around the country. A state that consistently wallops most other states—and many countries—on academic tests has a certain street cred when it walks into the policymaking arena. That's why yesterday'sstate board of education decision about the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) exams could influence other states' choices.

The Bay State's decision to use PARCC's first operational year, 2015, as a pilot is emblematic of a pivotal dilemma in the push to make school more rigorous for students: How quickly can you expect students, teachers, schools and state systems to respond when you ratchet up expectations? Setting up too long a timeline can suggest you're not committed to pressuring the system to get better, and setting too fast a timeline risks a bloodletting when low scores come out, especially if individual- or school-level stakes are attached.

Massachusetts could have decided to jump chest-deep into the new tests, sticking by its Race to the Top commitment to sunset its current test, the MCAS, and start relying on the PARCC tests in 2015. It could have attached stakes to the PARCC results, pegging high school graduation and other important decisions to scores that could be less glowing than those produced by the MCAS. But it decided against that strategy. It will keep using PARCC and MCAS simultaneously so it can figure out which assessments set better expectations for its students.

The state will take a wait-and-see attitude, as well, when it comes to the stakes that can be attached to test results. Mitchell D. Chester, the commissioner of education who proposed the phase-in approach, told me that it just doesn't make sense to expect his high school students to suddenly meet a "college-ready" bar in order to graduate. Not when four in 10 of Massachusetts students who clear the MCAS hurdle and enroll in state colleges or universities have to take at least one remedial class.

"Our system isn't ready to deliver a college-ready education to all our students off the bat," he told me the other day, before the board voted on the phase-in plan. "I don't want to get there by having students punished by not meeting that bar."

Setting the 'Cut Score'

Chester isn't alone in his concern about using results from the PARCC tests—or those being developed by the Smarter Balanced testing consortium—right away for purposes other than federal accountability (which is required by the regulations on the Race to the Top assessment program).Other states are trying to figure out which high school tests to use, and where to set that cut score for graduation.

Both PARCC and Smarter Balanced will establish scores that connote "college readiness," qualifying students to skip remedial work in their states' public colleges and universities. But will states use that college-readiness score as a high school graduation requirement? I've been doing some preliminary checking around on this, and haven't yet found a state that's planning to do so, for the same reasons that Massachusetts' Chester articulated.

A 2012 report by the Center on Education Policy reported that some states were planning to peg high school graduation to PARCC and Smarter Balanced test results. Checking with about a half-dozen recently, I've found that number dwindling. That's in part because some of those states have withdrawn from consortia work or are on the fence about using the consortium tests. But it's also because they're more uncertain that it's wise to condition high school graduation—at least just yet—on meeting the "college-readiness" bar of the new tests.

Rhode Island, for instance, one of the states the CEP reported as planning to use a consortium test as a graduation requirement, is currently noncommittal on whether it will use the college-ready cut score as a diploma requirement. Arizona's intention to use a consortium test as an exit exam is shifting, too; it has issued a request-for-information to see what other tests it might use.

There is more and more talk, too, about using the consortium tests, but having two cut points: a consortium's shared college-readiness cut score, as a signal to higher education, and a lower high school graduation score. Chester said that concept is something he's weighing in Massachusetts.

It's all about figuring out a reasonably paced transition, state officials are telling me. And in making that transition, Massachusetts is sending some powerful signals that others will be watching.

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