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Mass. Exodus: Is This the Beginning of the End for Common Assessment?

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There is big news out of Massachusetts today: the state is officially turning its back on PARCC and will begin designing its own tests to assess the Common Core State Standards. As the New York Times reports, Massachusetts will "go it alone and abandon the multistate test" and instead turn to one "to be developed for just this state." And, the Times adds, "the move will cost an extra year and unknown millions of dollars."

I'm all turned around on this one, to be honest. In the first place, Massachusetts has long been held up as the gold standard in education reform. This is a state, after all, that was an early adopter of standards-based reform and has boasted high test scores; its star has been rising ever since. If it were a country, they say it would rank among the world's best. The story is made even more interesting because Mitchell Chester, the commissioner of education in Massachusetts, has been a vocal proponent of his state's approach to educating young people. He's the guy who wanted us all to take the same tests in the first place. 

With so much going right, what went wrong?

Well, in the first place, I don't know that I believe that everything was always going so right to begin with. It's hard to argue with Massachusetts' scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which consistently show it outpacing other states. Then again, NAEP is a normalized assessment, meaning that all it really can do is show us how states compare to each other. So if the bar is too low in every state, or if every state is struggling to provide a quality education to its students, or if the test itself is flawed—well, someone still has to be at the bottom of the distribution, and someone has to be at the top. Being the best of the worst isn't the same thing as being the best. 

But what about those rankings that say Masachusetts would be ranked 9th in the world if it were a country? Yeah, about those. That claim is based on results gathered from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an exam given to 510,000 students worldwide in 2012. (Just over 6,000 students in the U.S. took the exam; there are 50 million children attending public schools here.) Yes, of course, you can try to construct a viable representative sample of the world's population, which is approaching 7.5 billion, and draw some conclusions from such a sample, but it should be noted that these results are gleaned from a sample size that is the tiniest fraction of one percent of the whole population. How small can a sample size be and still be relevant? Education is a complex activity that is culturally situated, and no two countries approach it in exactly the same way. It's easy to see why some folks are not as excited about PISA as some others would like for them to be.

So, okay, maybe the Massachusetts Miracle is actually a Massachusetts Mirage. To be fair, it probably isn't, at least not entirely—the metrics we're using may be flawed, but I don't doubt for a second that a lot of kids in Massachusetts do, in fact, receive a world class education every day. (I also, for the record, don't think that Massachusetts is the "best of the worst"; there's a lot of good education on offer in American public schools all over the country, in spite of what you may have heard). Still, it begs the question: if the Massachusetts reform story is generally a positive one, why would the state turn its back on common testing? And what does it mean for the future?

My guess, after reading everything I could find on the subject, is that Mitchell Chester and others charged with making school policy in Massachusetts can read the writing on the wall. What that writing says, I think, is that the era of No Child Left Behind is finally coming to a close. Discussions have been underway for at least a year now in Congress to finally reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and appear to be gathering steam. Discussion outside of the halls of Congress has been going on even longer than that. Public opinion finally seems to be coalescing around the idea that kids take too many tests, and the peals of dissatisfaction are even beginning to resonate inside the White House: in a sharp repudiation of his own agenda, even President Obama has finally acknowledged that testing is out of control. Maybe this is just good politics.

Hmm. It should be noted here that Massachusetts isn't declaring an end to testing. The state is preparing to develop its own assessment instead, and that makes me wonder if this is an educational decision or a political one. Remember that line from the New York Times article above, the one stating that this change of heart will cost "an extra year and unknown millions of dollars" to implement? That doesn't seem like a step forward at all. It sounds, to me, like more of the same: states doing what they want to do, spending precious education dollars on testing that could instead be spent on hiring teachers or lowering class sizes or serving school lunches or any of a million other things that would have a more positive impact on the everyday lives of American children. Massachusetts is poised to spend more money on testing because of this decision, not less. Halt the victory parade, folks.

And what about the dream of providing every single child in America—regardless or where he or she was born, regardless of who his or her parents are—a fair shot at a quality education? We need the Massachusetts-es of the world to stand with those kids in Mississippi and Missouri and Michigan and Maine to ensure that a quality education is available to everyone. I don't believe for a second that a test created by a for-profit corporation will ensure that. But I do worry that Massachusetts worrying about Massachusetts means, in some small way, more of the same for kids in Mississippi. And what I mean by that, if it's not clear enough already, is that when we all pull in different directions it's hard to come together. I'd rather see us come together.

This, in a nutshell, is my biggest fear about the direction education policy seems to be taking. I'm not the world's biggest fan of Arne Duncan's Department of Education, but I do see space for a very viable and robust and meaningful federal presence in education policymaking. It's beginning to look like that is not the direction we're headed in. Duncan and Obama overplayed their hand—there doesn't seem to be any doubt about that. Moreover, they also did so in a political environment that was already trending toward decentralization, and they did so in an area of the policy arena—education—that is particularly receptive to decentralized power. Now, because of their miscalculation, even the staunchest proponents of a sensible solution to the radical decentralization of American education are running scared, and political posturing is leading the way. That's disappointing, to put it mildly.

In fairness, Chester hasn't come out against Common Core itself, but, then, isn't the writing on the wall? Is there any reason to believe that these "common" standards will still be common when each state begins implementing its own assessments—and after Congress rewinds federal oversight of education to 1964? Good for you, Massachusetts, if you think you can develop high quality tests that will ensure the success of every child in Massachusetts. Even better if you can do it without Pearson. But just remember those kids all over the country who have less responsible adults making decisions about their education. Without your leadership, and without a robust federal presence to ensure fairness, who will stand for those kids?

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