BOSTON >> The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) and the Baker administration took a step in the right direction in November when they allowed Massachusetts to chart its own course in K-12 public education by adopting next-generation MCAS tests rather than those developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) testing consortium. But the real work begins now, as the commonwealth prepares to select a vendor to develop "MCAS 2.0."
The test procurement is really the next installment in the ongoing debate over Common Core. There are good reasons to be vigilant — and for BESE to build in explicit safeguards to ensure the integrity and fairness of the bidding process.
In addition to serving as Massachusetts commissioner of elementary and secondary education, Mitchell Chester also sits on the governing board of PARCC, the consortium whose tests the board rejected in November. Chester has already said he expects the new assessment to be "80-to-90 percent PARCC."
Chester's dual role and stated preference for PARCC should raise concerns. The PARCC tests were developed by Pearson, the world's largest testing company.
The PARCC consortium, which has lost two-thirds of its member states, has been the focus of lawsuits alleging procurement favoritism in several jurisdictions. Plaintiffs in New Mexico, for example, claimed the state request for proposals was written to favor Pearson. It required, for example, that the winning bidder use the company's computer testing software for at least a year.
Nor does Commissioner Chester's record of impartiality inspire confidence when it comes to Common Core. In 2010, a WCVB TV-5 investigation found that Chester accepted thousands of dollars worth of travel and luxury accommodations from organizations backing the national standards.
Earlier that year, he said he would base his recommendation to the BESE about whether to stick with Massachusetts' best-in-the-nation English and math standards or adopt Common Core on three studies. All came from organizations funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing and marketing Common Core.
After Massachusetts adopted Common Core, several members of Chester's senior staff took jobs with Common Core backers or with PARCC. His former chief of staff is Pearson's director of public affairs for the eastern United States.
One of the three studies on which Chester based his Common Core recommendation was from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which has received nearly $3.5 million of Gates Foundation money to advocate for the national standards and PARCC. Fordham will soon release its "independent" comparison of MCAS and PARCC.
Structuring a fair MCAS 2.0 procurement process requires an understanding of the ongoing Common Core debate. MCAS, which was developed by the New Hampshire company Measured Progress, was the cornerstone of Massachusetts' unprecedented success in the aftermath of landmark 1993 education reform legislation, which resulted in our students becoming among the world's best.
But that's changing since Common Core was adopted in 2010. Last year, for the first time in more than a decade, Massachusetts did not lead the nation in English and math at all grades tested on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Massachusetts' NAEP scores have been slipping since 2011.
Several immediate steps should be taken to stem the academic deterioration. The first is ensuring an arms-length procurement process for the new test developer. The BESE voted to approve next-generation MCAS tests. Having already developed the PARCC tests, it would be tempting for Pearson to maximize its profits by largely cutting and pasting those tests and calling the finished product MCAS 2.0.
Next, we must restore the rigor of 10th grade MCAS tests, which Chester's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has allowed to be dumbed down since 2011.
Over the long term, stemming the commonwealth's decline will require restoring state English and math standards to their pre-Common Core academic quality. This would offer the additional benefit of providing continuity and would foster accountability by allowing student performance to be measured over time.
Few people get excited about procurement, but the choice of an MCAS 2.0 vendor is an important one. An arms-length process free of conflicts of interest could position Massachusetts to rebound from recent education policy missteps; one that favors Pearson would likely spell continuing decline.