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Ed Reform goes soft in Massachusetts and so does Arne Duncan

Posted by Jim Stergios  September 3, 2010 08:07 AM

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The MCAS is different from most other state tests. It is a high-stakes test for all students; its being a graduation requirement underscores the seriousness of purpose, and its being for all students meant that we would not allow a good system for some and a less good system for others. After all, that is what we had before 1993.

Success on the MCAS test correlates very well with success on national and international assessments. The better you do on MCAS, the better you are likely to do in college and in your career. You can't say that about most state tests, which are all over the place in terms of correlation. So the MCAS is a good test. (There are ways to improve it, but that's for another day.)

Jamie Vaznis of the Boston Globe reports today on the leadership role that Massachusetts state ed officials are playing in developing new national tests. You might think having our state education officials in the lead is a good thing, given that this state's success in education historically is based on the fact that it took a very different path from the "soft skills" crowd.

Well, it's not good news.

The fact is that today's state education leaders have always wanted to "evolve" (their words, not mine) the MCAS in a way that is less focused on academic excellence and more focused on "soft skills," or what they called in a 2008 report "21st century skills." None of their theorizing about new skills was new; it had been tried in many states before. And it did not work, meaning that there was no correlation to improvements on national and international assessments.

The fella currently serving as Massachusetts Commissioner of Education, Mitchell Chester, was in fact involved in Connecticut's attempts in the 1990s to inject a skills approach into the Constitution State's standards and assessments. After adopting the skills approach, Connecticut's performance on the Nation's Report Card, as you can see below, tanked. (Sorry about the quality of that image!)

8th_grade_reading CT MA US.jpg

The evidence from Connecticut and the lack of evidence from any other state that the skills approach works, taken together with Massachusetts' impressive progress in student achievement, should have given our current education leaders pause. It didn't.

The announcement about Massachusetts' leadership in one of the consortia developing national tests came from US Ed Secretary Arne Duncan -- the new and improved, 21st Century Skills Arne Duncan. Consider these statements from Secretary Duncan:

… It’s for all these reasons that shortly after taking office, President Obama called on the nation’s governors and state education chiefs “to develop standards and assessments that don’t simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem solving and critical thinking and entrepreneurship and creativity.”

… When the president issued that challenge in March of 2009, many experts questioned whether states could work together to set rigorous, globally competitive standards or collaborate to develop assessments of 21st century skills.

… Now, I sometimes get asked, how would a better generation of assessments really differ in practice from existing assessments? It is an excellent question—and one I especially hear from teachers, many of whom feel at times more like they are running test‐prep classes in basic skills, instead of educating the whole child for the 21st century.

Educate the whole child? Ring any bells?

So out the MCAS goes (see pages 44-49 of the state's RTT application if you want to see the commitments Massachusetts has made to scrapping the MCAS), in the sense that we are giving up the proven approach of focusing on content and knowledge attainment.

Out goes the MCAS in the sense that there is no public commitment that the new assessments will be high-stakes for all students as is the case in Massachusetts (and even lots of hemming and hawing from Arne on this point).

Our current state leaders may talk about taking the Massachusetts “brand” of education reform country-wide, but the fact is that they are discarding the substance of the reform.

Who would have thought that Arne Duncan, reform crusader, has morphed into a mix of P21's Ken Kay and the Whole Childers, who for so long opposed testing? You might call him Mr. Softy.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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