Thursday, October 15, 2015

An Open Letter About Testing to Massachusetts State Representatives

October 15, 2015

An Open Letter to State Senator Kathleen O’Conner Ives and Colleagues:

I’ve recently read about your work crafting legislation around the choice and use of standardized tests in Massachusetts Schools.  As a parent and career educator, I always applaud when government officials spend time reflecting on education policy in search of what’s best for our schools and our children.  I want to offer a word of caution on this matter, though, as it has become so politicized and obscured by misleading biases and poor press coverage.  I fully believe that you’ve done your research, so I won’t get into too much of the background itself so much as speak to the article that ran in Newburyport’s Daily News on Monday, October 12. ( )

It is obviously important to think about the cost of transitioning to PARCC.  There are technology costs, curriculum costs, time and staffing expenditures for the training and setup, and costs to the state involved.  On top of the money to consider, there are emotional and classroom costs that go along with this.  Furthermore, since Massachusetts has become so proud of its MCAS being the top rated standards-bearer in the nation, there are costs to our systemic ego.  Finally, we have to consider the costs incurred by our students’ futures, although this will be harder to gauge since all factions in the debate will cite the issues with siding with their opponents.

The biggest issue, though, as I see it, is inaction in either direction.  DESE and Jim Peyser are being absolutely irresponsible by delaying their decision.  Currently, districts are in limbo, either preparing for a PARCC test (and maybe even having taken it last year) that won’t happen or preparing for another MCAS that may not happen, leaving them to scramble if DESE goes with PARCC.  This indecision is not only unbecoming of the leadership we need but also puts all of the aforementioned costs into play.  And what does the state have to gain by waiting...nothing but drama I imagine.  PARCC scores are uncomparable to MCAS and Massachusetts will likely fare pretty well relative to the few other states still considering PARCC.  I was at one of the public forums that DESE had on the transition; nothing new came up, even though dozens of people spoke about both the MCAS, PARCC and dropping all tests.  If there are some unique mitigating circumstances that may affect the decision, it’s irresponsible for them to be discussed in a bubble.  

With regards to your concern, there is nothing “hasty” about the transition over to the Common Core or the move toward the PARCC exam.  These shifts have been in the news and legislative plans since 2009.  The bigger question is why districts and our profession have moved so slowly.  We could push back the switch date by five years and some places will still be at a place of purposeful inertia and other places will be too underfunded to join an evolution, regardless of their motivation to do so.  Your efforts ought to be, therefore, placed towards holding the government of Massachusetts accountable for its unfunded mandates and ineffective funding formulas; fixing those will begin to allow education organizations to concentrate on moving our curricula and students towards readiness for the modern age we’re in, which ought to be our goal under the umbrella of any testing schema..   

I’m not sure how teachers can believe that PARCC isn’t aligned with our updated curriculum framework.  There aren’t enough specifics in the article to question that assertion.  I can easily agree, however, about the fallacy of using standardized test scores to grade teacher and schools and keep students from graduating.  This is a question of Massachusetts’s willingness to stand up and speak to what’s actually important to us.  Value-added teacher evaluations and singleton tests deciding on graduation for students are clearly wrong-headed practices.  They are political grandstands at best.  The real work is devising a means of ensuring that schools are continuously working in favor of rigorous curricula and assessment without objective, for-profit tests.   

The takeaway here is that stopping the testing won’t improve our schools any more than using PARCC or MCAS on their own will.  Schools will only become better at educating and supporting students when we come up with a viable plan and move towards that.  Doing away with testing doesn’t necessarily leave us anywhere.  

If you’d ever like to speak further, please be in touch.  

David Hochheiser

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