Dismantling of ed reform.
COLUMN: AS I SEE IT
The Gov. Deval Patrick administration has finally come clean, admitting that MCAS will soon be a thing of the past. Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester, who heads up one of the two consortia developing tests based on new national education standards known as Common Core, is among a relatively small group who will decide what new assessments will look like in the commonwealth and more than 20 other states.
This month Mr. Chester is among those who will be highlighted at a Boston event for what education writer Frederick Hess calls "cage-busting leadership." But what he has led is the systematic dismantling of reforms that made Massachusetts the nation's K-12 public education leader.
In 2005, Massachusetts students became the first ever to score best in the nation in every category and grade tested by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation's report card. And though American students lag their international peers, the Bay State's eighth-graders tied for first in the world in science in the 2007 Trends in International Math and Science Study.
The first problem with the nationalized Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) testing consortium is that its work is probably illegal. PARCC has received $186 million despite three laws explicitly prohibiting the use of federal money for national K-12 standards, curricula or testing.
In Massachusetts, Mr. Chester led the process that resulted in adoption of the weaker national English and math standards. The English standards contain less than half the classic literature included in our previous state standards. Stanford University Emeritus Professor of Mathematics James Milgram has described "extremely serious failings" in Common Core's math standards, and said they reflect "very low expectations."
In 2010, a WCVB TV-5 report found that Commissioner Chester and other state education officials accepted luxury travel and accommodations from national standards backers while Massachusetts was considering whether to adopt Common Core.
In 1998, Connecticut had slightly higher reading scores than Massachusetts. But while the commonwealth opted for clearly articulated academic goals and objective tests, Connecticut adopted a "hands-on," soft skills-based approach advocated by the state's then-Deputy Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester. By 2005, Massachusetts' scores had jumped dramatically and Connecticut was one of seven states that saw the sharpest drop in reading scores.
As Massachusetts commissioner, Mr. Chester is again shunning clear academic goals and objective assessments in favor of standards that give soft skills like "systems thinking" and "cross-cultural competence" equal billing with academic content.
In 2009, Mr. Chester's preference for soft skills led to cancellation of a planned requirement that Massachusetts public school students pass a basic U.S. history MCAS test to graduate from high school.
Another cornerstone of Massachusetts' education success was a rigorous, merit-based charter school selection process, under which the commissioner recommends to the Board of Education whether a charter should be granted.
The night after officials from the Department of Education's Charter School Office told Mr. Chester in 2009 that a proposed Gloucester charter school did not meet established criteria, then-state Education Secretary Paul Reville sent Mr. Chester an email asking if Mr. Chester could nonetheless "see his way clear to supporting" the Gloucester application.
According to a January 2010 state Inspector General's report, Mr. Chester indicated to Mr. Reville the very next day that he was willing to recommend that the school be approved.
The IG reported that when Mr. Chester made his recommendation that the board approve the Gloucester proposal, he failed to inform them of the Charter School Office's recommendation, instead conveying "the impression that he and the (Charter School Office) had mutually recommended approval."
A state Superior Court judge subsequently supported the IG's finding that Mr. Chester "ignored ... state regulations and caved into political pressure" in recommending the Gloucester charter school for approval. Mr. Chester was recently forced to shutter the school due to poor performance.
Like our previous academic standards, MCAS was a national model that produced proven results.
But as has already happened to so many of Massachusetts' successful education reforms, MCAS is about to become history. And the 22 other states that are part of the PARCC testing consortium should have grave concerns about the quality of the national test their states will soon be implementing.
Charles Chieppo is a senior fellow and Jamie Gass directs the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Massachusetts public policy think tank.
NAME: MASSACHUSETTS COMPREHENSIVE ASSESSMENT SYSTEM