Edward Udel: Sinister brilliance of the MCAS-PARCC hybrid

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DALTON >> Had I thought of MCAS 2.0 first, I might have become a wealthy consultant. But since it appears to be the brainchild of Secretary James Peyser and Commissioner Mitchell Chester, I won't be invited to rub elbows with those who believe that we can test our way to the Promised Land.

Thanks to them, the difficult if not impossible choice between two powerhouse assessments has been avoided. Peyser and Chester turned to a process that has not been warmly received in Washington D.C. since Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neil saved Social Security together. They fashioned a compromise between two competitors — MCAS and PARCC, proposing a hybrid high stakes test composed of questions from both. Will this new creation be called MCAS HEAVY or PARCC LIGHT? Or will they stick with MCAS 2.0?

Simplicity can be elusive but not this time. Chester and Peyser have nailed it! Frankly, I wasn't sure they could. There were times when their observations seemed downright contradictory. When students from Massachusetts scored well on international tests, they credited the MCAS and the panoply of state mandates they have imposed upon local communities. But when more than 30 percent of Massachusetts high school graduates needed remedial college courses this past year, they concluded that MCAS is a junior high test and much too easy. Perhaps you can understand my confusion.

Common Core issue

What motivated their hybrid compromise? If Massachusetts adopts the PARCC test and eliminates the MCAS, it will forfeit all control over its curriculum and assessment program. PARCC is based upon the Common Core which specifically lays out a federal instructional plan for grades K-12. If Massachusetts adopted the PARCC as its only high stakes test, it would be forced to follow the Common Core to the letter and relinquish its own instructional vision. It would be similar to a community losing control of its schools to the state but that doesn't happen in a commonwealth that prizes autonomy does it?

MCAS is a Massachusetts test, composed each year by a private testing company in New Hampshire to measure knowledge and skills in specific ways that Massachusetts has determined to be beneficial to all of its school districts. The marriage of MCAS and PARCC under the MCAS 2.0 label would, according to some, accomplish the best of both worlds, retaining state control while making the test even tougher and more demanding.

There is just one itsy bitsy tiny weenie fly in the ointment. How will schools that already consume much of their instructional time directly prepping their students for the MCAS also prepare them for the more demanding PARCC-like questions? When would they find the time? Could this be a clever ploy to lengthen the school day and school year, providing the same amount of test preparation time that the charters enjoy?

This hybrid plan has the potential for putting our schools in a permanent state of what some might generously call constructive panic, creating uncertainty about how to prepare for the yearly test! What if in one year, the test included 20 percent PARCC type questions but in the next year the percentage increased dramatically? Can you imagine the sheer unadulterated polyunsaturated enthusiasm for such a change especially among teachers now that their performance evaluations are directly tied to high stakes test results?

I understand the attraction to the hybrid compromise that enables the state to keep the control that it has wrested from its school districts. But why not go all the way? Why not include SAT and ACT questions too, interrogatories from MEAP, NEAP and CREEP and parts of every other test including the FIFSA. There could even be a vision and hearing component. Why not test for everything with one neatly packaged assessment?

Chester and Peyser are obviously on to something. Test scores will predictably and dramatically decline, paving the way for more school take-overs, more charter schools, more terminations and more conversations about failing schools and failing teachers. All of this could be accomplished with one iron clad irrefutable assessment. Now that's progress!

Damage to be done

The fact that so much school time is already consumed prepping the kids for the MCAS is a stubborn fact, but one that we have already proven we can comfortably ignore or conceal. And this testing program would probably satisfy college presidents who seek tougher K-12 testing as a prerequisite for academic success in their institutions even though some of them lead schools that have either weak or non-existent admission requirements.

I can see their point. It would be much easier and far more profitable for their institutions to keep their classrooms fully occupied and leave it to others to take responsibility for tougher standards.

Whether it is MCAS HEAVY or PARCC LIGHT or simply MCAS 2.0, bring it! There is still important damage to do. With a new, tougher, far more comprehensive high stakes test, advocates, unencumbered by an understanding of the actual impact of these tests, will insist that more students will qualify to PARCC their cars in Harvard Yard.

Edward Udel was a long-time teacher in the Pittsfield Public School System and former chairman of the Taconic English Department.


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