An Opportunity to Get Standardized Testing Right

ivesThe Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) is due to make a formal recommendation on whether to adopt the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test or to continue with the MCAS test at their meeting on November 17. In the final weeks leading up to the decision, the debate over student testing has intensified in the Massachusetts legislature as stakeholders on both sides of the question make their final arguments.

The Education Reform Act of 1993 included the implementation of a standardized test, the MCAS, to assess the “skills, competencies, and knowledge” that a student in Massachusetts should possess by graduation. This test was meant to align the Commonwealth with the standards set by the most educationally advanced nations.

In the two decades since the beginning of MCAS, we have seen administrator, teacher, and student time increasingly focused on preparedness and success on the MCAS. With limited time in a school day, innovative instruction time, extracurricular activities, and other strategies to develop a love of learning in students is sacrificed. There are some overarching, baseline questions we must ask before the Commonwealth makes a major investment of time and money in an updated assessment framework.

Primarily, we must determine at the outset the objective of standardized testing. Are we more concerned about a student’s college readiness or their mastery of the high school curriculum? Should tests be used to measure student performance or to evaluate teachers? Do we use standardized tests as gatekeepers to keep back students who don’t measure up, or do we use testing as a tool to compare educational outcomes between municipalities and other states?
The goals of the next phase of high stakes testing remain unclear. Massachusetts has moved through this complicated decision process too hastily given the long-term impact this decision will have.

This October, I spoke in support of an amendment to the state supplemental budget filed by Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, tasking the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education with evaluating the true cost of implementing PARCC testing in Massachusetts public schools. The currently unknown logistical, administrative, and financial costs would be detailed in a report for the legislature’s consideration before any changes could be made to the testing system. Although the amendment was ultimately not adopted in the final version of the supplemental budget, we did receive a tremendous amount of support, including 22 legislators who signed-on in support of our amendment.

In addition, I co-sponsored House Bill 340 “An Act Relative to a Moratorium on High Stakes Testing and PARCC.” This bill would suspend MCAS or any other standardized testing for a period of three years, allowing the state to ascertain its priorities and choose a system of testing that most closely fits our needs and objectives. Importantly, we should include administrators and educators in this process to ensure that any future standardized test matches the curriculum being taught in classrooms around the Commonwealth.

Concurrent with our efforts to secure a cost-benefit analysis before PARCC adoption, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced that they are open to considering a third option in addition to PARCC and MCAS. Dubbed “MCAS 2.0,” this third option would forego adopting PARCC so that Massachusetts can maintain local control over any new standardized test while updating and improving upon the MCAS. This route would allow us to control our own destiny in developing an effective testing framework. If the state adopts this third option, we have an important opportunity to adopt best practices for a model, which meets students’ needs for today and into the future.
Massachusetts is a state known for raising the bar and should seize this opportunity to maintain its top position in public education. By improving upon the current MCAS and making adjustments that support student learning, the Commonwealth can achieve even better educational outcomes than the state ever has since the introduction of standardized tests.

In my role as a legislator and as resident, I remain critical of the cost-benefit of statewide standardized testing, but am hopeful that this third option is a step in the right direction. Like all things, the devil is in the details.
State Senator Kathleen  O’Connor Ives is in her 2nd term as a Massachusetts State Senator and can be reached at KATHLEEN.OCONNORIVES@MASENATE.GOV