MCAS or PARCC? The choice is clear

Next month, education policy makers in Massachusetts will decide whether to keep the highly praised Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) or adopt the controversial Common Core-aligned test developed by the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). About half of Massachusetts public school students transitioned to PARCC last year. By most accounts, it did not go well. The so-called compromise, billed as MCAS 2.0, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Since then, opposition to PARCC has been growing across the state and has brought together an unusually bipartisan coalition of high-stakes testing opponents, states’ rights advocates, teachers’ unions, and academics who simply believe that PARCC is inferior to MCAS. In the face of this opposition, and with the potential for a statewide referendum on Common Core in 2016, Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester on Tuesday dropped his support for the PARCC exam. Instead, Chester plans to recommend that the Board of Secondary and Elementary Education adopt a hybrid model that retains state control of the standardized test, but models the exam after PARCC. This so-called compromise, billed as MCAS 2.0, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Allowing the state to develop and administer its own exam might satisfy those whose opposition to PARCC is based solely on federalism concerns. But it will do little to satisfy those who oppose the national testing regime on the merits. Issues of local control aside, there is no evidence that the PARCC test is more predictive of college readiness than MCAS 1.0. An example of a correct PARCC answer. An example of a correct PARCC answer. And there is plenty of evidence that suggests that Common Core’s focus on “global awareness,” “systems thinking,” and “cross-cultural flexibility” (rather than substantive content) has made Massachusetts public schools less academically rigorous than they used to be. Much has been said about Common Core’s failings in the area of mathematics. You can review some critiques of Common Core math here, here and here. Put simply, Common Core aims to offer a “deeper” understanding of “fewer” mathematical concepts. Because Common Core aims to have students explain mathematical concepts, not just solve math problems, students are discouraged from using time-honored shortcuts, such as mnemonic devices that help one remember the order of operations, crossing-off zeroes when dividing, or cross-multiplying when dividing fractions. With Common Core math, students no longer cross-off zeroes when dividing or cross-multiply when dividing fractions. To most parents, these short-cuts make math easier. But to a Common Core supporter, these devices are cheap tricks that undermine a student’s ability to think conceptually. The problem with this approach is twofold: First: Children who know their math facts and can solve traditional math problems but have trouble “explaining” how they did so are doomed to mediocrity. A student who gets seven out of seven math problems correct receives a score of 70 percent on her math test if she cannot answer three narrative questions about why she solved the problems the way she did. Second: By minimizing the importance of rapid recall and efficiency, Common Core makes upper-level high school math — which presumes a base level of automaticity — more difficult. A father's photo went viral after he wrote a check using "Common Core numbers." (Facebook) A father’s photo went viral after he wrote a check using “Common Core numbers.” (Facebook) Of course, under Common Core, teachers may never have to confront this second problem because many public schools will spend so much time on “deeper” levels of thinking that they will not have time to cover parts of algebra II, pre-calculus, and calculus courses. All of this leaves students inadequately prepared for college-level math. But, the authors of Common Core are not concerned with educating engineers, scientists, or mathematicians. They are concerned only with educating at the level of the lowest common denominator. But Common Core makes a mockery not only of math. It also decimates the language arts curriculum. You can review critiques of the Common Core ELA standards here and here. Suffice it to say, the Common Core ELA standards revolve around mastery of content-free skills. What does this mean? According to the Pioneer Institute‘s Center for School Reform, Massachusetts has witnessed a 50-percent drop in the amount of classical literature taught in public schools since adopting Common Core in 2010. That’s because, despite its name, Common Core does not specify a common canon of literature to which students should be exposed. Nor does it require the study of the great literary genres. Since adopting Common Core in 2010, Massachusetts has witnessed a 50-percent drop in the amount of classical literature taught in public schools. By emphasizing skills, detached from content, Common Core reduces the amount of poetry, drama, and classical literature taught in English classes in favor of “informational texts” (including political speeches, government documents, how-to texts, and newspaper articles.) Early reports indicate that, overall, Massachusetts students scored at least 8 percentage points lower on PARCC tests than on previous MCAS exams. Proponents of PARCC and the underlying Common Core curriculum will no doubt claim that those calling for a return to MCAS are simply “shooting the messenger” — attacking the test and the standards because student scores went down. But sub-par academic standards are the real reason to abandon Common Core and PARCC. Massachusetts should scrap this unpopular social experiment, regardless of the test results.

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