The US Department of Education announced this morning that a consortium of states led by Massachusetts and Florida will receive a $170 million federal grant to come up with standardized tests to replace a patchwork of tests used by individual states, such as the MCAS in Massachusetts.
The new testing system is expected to be ready by the 2014-15 school year, and will measure how much students are learning under a new set of national academic standards in English and math that Massachusetts has adopted in July. Like the MCAS, the new testing system would assess students in grades 3-8 and one high-school grade level in those subjects.
The goal of a shared testing system among states is to come up with a more consistent way to judge student and school performance from one state to another. Currently, the rigor of state standardized tests varies considerably among the states.
Massachusetts, for instance, is known to have among the toughest exams in the nation. So when the state's students score poorly on the MCAS they may actually be doing better than peers in other states that have weaker exams and thus give the appearance that those students have made greater gains.
Massachusetts' embrace of national standards set off intense political debate on the gubernatorial trail. While Governor Deval Patrick repeatedly has said he remains committed to MCAS, his opponents have said adoption of the national standards would ultimately lead to the demise of MCAS.
The state's commissioner of elementary and secondary education, Mitchell Chester, is chairing the consortium, which is called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.
The grant stirred up the MCAS debate on the campaign trail today, with Patrick's opponents using the test issue to criticize the governor.
“Governor Patrick should have been upfront with the voters of Massachusetts from the beginning about his intention to side with the unions and abandon MCAS,'' said a statment from the campaign of Republican Charles Baker. "Massachusetts should not be handing over the keys to its education system to the federal government.''
State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, who is running as an Independent, said: “Joining the consortium is another step in the wrong direction for Massachusetts students. The MCAS is one of the most rigorous exams in the country, and we are backtracking by creating a new standardized test to replace it.''
Although the federal government sought assurances from applicants for the federal funds to ultimately adopt the resulting testing system, states could bow out if they are dissatisfied with the final product. Any change in testing systems in Massachusetts would require a vote by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
If the board adopts the shared testing system, the state plans to keep MCAS exams in science, a subject not covered by the national standards.
Massachusetts is among 11 entities leading the 26-state consortium. The other leaders, known as governing states, are Arizona, the District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, Rhode Island, and Tennessee.
The remaining consortium members are Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Dakota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina.
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