New Developments Strengthen Case for Moratorium on Punitive Uses of State Standardized Tests

A perfect storm has engulfed the Massachusetts test-focused accountability system:

  • First, the Mathematica study commissioned by Secretary James Peyser showed that neither MCAS nor PARCC measures college readiness accurately. Mathematica reported that test scores accounted for only five to 18 percent of the variation in first-year college grades.
  • Next, Commissioner Mitchell Chester pulled back from his push for Massachusetts to adopt the national PARCC test, telling the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education last week that he will propose “Door No. 3,” or “MCAS 2.0” – a homegrown version of PARCC that does not exist yet. This year, students took three different state tests: MCAS, PARCC on computers, and PARCC on paper. Next year, no one knows what’s in store. How can we rank schools on student achievement with such different yardsticks?
  • Then, last Saturday, President Obama unexpectedly announced he has directed the Department of Education to work “aggressively” to cut back on standardized testing and to change the No Child Left Behind waiver agreements through which the federal government pressured states to increase testing. “Learning is about so much more than filling in the right bubble,” the President said, sounding exactly like his critics.

Meanwhile, other states are already leading the way toward 21st century, innovative assessments. New York, California, and New Hampshire are piloting assessment systems that de-emphasize standardized test scores. The federal government has been permitting this without any threat to Title I funding.

Alaska, Arizona, California, Georgia, Minnesota, and South Carolina have all stopped or paused their graduation tests. Most states do not require students to pass a standardized test to get their high school diplomas. Rhode Island has postponed imposing a graduation test. Massachusetts is the only New England state with such a requirement.

Michigan was granted a federal waiver last summer to stop labeling its lowest-performing schools on the grounds that it switched to a new state test in 2013 and needs more experience with the new test before it can make accurate judgments about schools. Last spring, California suspended its use of scores as the major yardstick for evaluating schools. The situation in these two states is very similar to that in Massachusetts. 

MCAS vs PARCC vs SAT: None of them assesses “college or career readiness.”

In the debate over PARCC vs MCAS, each side has made convincing arguments that the other side’s test is inadequate.

Some of the main criticisms are:

  • MCAS (according the Commissioner Mitchell Chester) leads to teaching to the test and does not improve instruction.
  • PARCC’s computer interface is often confusing. PARCC’s reading difficulty – often far beyond the grade level of the students taking it – puts many children, especially English language learners and students with disabilities, at a disadvantage. PARCC math tests measure English skills as much as math. And nobody seems to know how much it will cost to buy the computer hardware and software needed to make a PARCC-like test possible. That money that will have to be diverted from other, more valuable uses like smaller classes and high-quality preschool.

The Mathematica study confirmed earlier research that showed the SAT, too, does a poor job of assessing college readiness, even though the SAT has been honed for that purpose for nearly 90 years by America’s leading standardized test designers.

It is time to abandon the quest for the holy grail of high-stakes testing: a standardized test that can measure a student’s “readiness” for the complex, many-faceted worlds of college and careers. There is no such test.

Surprisingly, all the testing and test prep have failed even to improve the limited range of skills that standardized tests do measure. Massachusetts data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show little or no effect on overall scores or on achievement gaps since the MCAS became a high-stakes test in 2003. We have posted the NAEP data here on our website.

(Contrary to claims by supporters of high-stakes testing, MCAS did not vault Massachusetts from the “middle of the pack” to the top of state rankings. Massachusetts was close to the top before MCAS. And that’s not surprising because Massachusetts is at or close to the top in income and parent education, by far the strongest predictors of test scores.)

Now is the time to call a three-year moratorium on our outdated, test-focused accountability system and create space for innovation.

We ask the legislature to pass the bills that would stop the sanctions: H.340 filed by Rep. Marjorie Decker, H.418 by Rep. Mary Keefe, H.497 by Rep. Benjamin Swan, S.311 by Sen. Barbara L’Italien, S.257 by Sen. Cynthia Creem, S.294 by Sen. Pat Jehlen. These bills address specific penalties based on test scores that current state laws or regulations impose.

None of these bills would end testing. But they would stop the use of test scores to deny students diplomas, derail teachers’ careers, or punish schools and school districts. Without the fear of sanctions, districts could cancel the endless, boring days of test prep and focus on educating their students.

Standardized tests should be used to improve instruction, not to punish.

Note: H.497 and S.257 would permanently cancel the requirement that students pass a state standardized test to get their diplomas. The other bills call for a three-year moratorium on sanctions. CPS also supports H.3395 filed by Rep. Liz Malia, which would allow parents to opt their children out of standardized tests.