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Massachusetts moves on from Common Core tests, but impact's here to stay

Massachusetts, a national leader in K-12 education, will redesign its exams to blend its own state questions with items from the national PARCC assessment.

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    Latin teacher Elizabeth Moguel poses for a photograph with her seventh grade students at Boston Latin School in Boston, Massachusetts, the nation's oldest public school, in this September 2015 photo. Last week, the State Board of Education decided to drop Common Core testing from Massachusetts schools.
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The Massachusetts State Board of Education has voted to redesign its own state exam, the MCAS, after a two year trial of Common Core-aligned PARCC exams. The “next generation” tests, which will include some items from the CC-aligned PARCC exam, are an influential move from a national education leader that may hasten the end of a high-stakes national testing era while challenging education experts to come up with a better alternative.

Under intense pressure from both the right and left of the political spectrum, states have been practically tripping over each other to drop the controversial tests: Parents complained they were too hard, conservatives alleged they represented a federal takeover, and teachers' unions decried test score-based teacher evaluations. Only 20 states, plus the District of Columbia, are currently scheduled to continue with PARCC or Smarter Balanced tests aligned with Common Core standards. 

But Massachusetts, the education "miracle state" – whose students have  for a decade topped the National Assessment for Educational Progress (audit tests often called "the nation's report card") – was considered a crucial supporter for Common Core exams. 

It was Mitchell Chester, commissioner of elementary and secondary education in Massachusetts, who helped develop Common Core aligned tests, according to The New York Times. Mr. Chester reasoned that as states adopted the Common Core standards, based on recommendations from a governors-appointed board of experts, it only made sense to compare students' progress nationwide with national tests.

While the federal government did not design the Common Core, the Obama administration did encourage states to implement the standards, and test score-based teacher evaluations, in order to earn Race to the Top funding and No Child Left Behind waivers, requirements many states-rights advocates and teacher unions bitterly opposed.

But the goal of clear state-to-state comparisons fell out of sight as individual states began tweaking the language used to report results. A score that counted as "approaching expectations" in one part of the country might be labeled "proficient" somewhere else – the same state-to-state differences Common Core creators had hoped to fix.

"It may be a little too premature to declare it a failure," Massachusetts Secretary of Education James A. Peyser said in an October interview with The New York Times, "but for sure it's in retreat." 

Even the Obama administration, which has continued the Bush strategy of insisting on higher educational standards through carrot-and-stick measures as a way to improve performance overall, and close the achievement gap between white students and their minority classmates, has admitted that the last two decades of heavy testing is too much.

In October, soon after Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced his upcoming resignation, the White House promised to ask Congress to limit test-taking to 2 percent of instructional time

In the nation's largest cities, students take an average of eight standardized tests per year. There is little evidence to show that the tests have inspired immediate, measurable learning gains. 

But some educators have urged patience, reminding testing skeptics that even in Massachusetts, educational turnaround has been nearly 20 years in the making.

"If we revert back to the old standards, all this work will have been for naught,” Revere. Mass., Superintendent Dianne Kelly told The New York Times. 

Massachusetts will now redesign its MCAS tests, which began soon after the state's 1993 Education Reform Act, which tied increased funding to tougher standards. Educators anticipate that the new MCAS will keep Common Core standards and many PARCC questions, but make test adjustments less of a bureaucratic nightmare. The state plans to stay in the PARCC consortium in order to compare results.

And the reforms, both past and future, may influence other states as they brainstorm on how to create and measure educational progress. Sandra Stotsky, senior associate commissioner in Massachusetts from 1999-2003, has emphasized that the state's improvements stemmed not just from test-based standards and accountability, but an improved teacher licensure system, something the White House has also explored as a path to improving US schools. 

Although the Common Core may fade from its previous importance, it leaves behind lessons that will stick around with or without standardized tests: standards that emphasize critical thinking, contextualized knowledge, and more challenging assessments that push kids beyond Scantron-sheet bubbles.

"Common Core is here to stay," former Arizona governor Jan Brewer wrote in an opinion piece for Fox this summer. "Most leaders are looking past the activists that still use the Common Core as a rallying cry and embracing the need for education standards that adequately prepare our students." 

Editor’s note: This article has been modified to emphasize that some PARCC questions will still be part of Massachusetts’ redesigned MCAS exams.

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