Tuesday, June 14, 2016

"If the MCAS is so good, why are we ditching it?" Message from Boston

Massachusetts’ standardized test has long been considered the best in the nation. Here’s why we’re throwing it out

AS RAIN POURED outside on the chilly evening of February 24, a group of Arlington elementary school parents was imagining a sunnier place — Dorothy’s trip down the yellow brick road.

“Today you will read and think about the passages ‘Rescue the Tin Woodman’ and ‘Arriving at Emerald City’ from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” read a PowerPoint slide projected in the Thompson School gym, where the group had gathered. Linda Hanson, an Arlington School District literacy coach, was taking parents behind the curtain of a new standardized test their children would face April through June.

The exam, known as PARCC — which stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers — was aligned to the Common Core, a set of national educational standards for what students should be able to do in each grade in English and math. Hanson warned the parents that their children should expect different — and probably more difficult — questions and writing prompts than they had seen on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test, or MCAS.

Take the sample writing prompt on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, designed for fourth-graders. For any parents tempted into pleasant reminiscing about Munchkins and the Wicked Witch, the reverie didn’t last long. The prompt was complex: “Based on her words and actions in both passages, describe two of Dorothy’s qualities. Think about the person that Dorothy is. How do those qualities affect her adventures? Support your response with details from both passages.”

A woman in the back row whispered to her neighbor: “That seems hard.”

In the decade and a half since the national No Child Left Behind Act made annual, mandatory testing the new normal, protests have grown. Teachers and parents around the country have questioned whether any “cookie cutter” test can capture how much an individual student knows. The MCAS has long been considered one of the nation’s best tests at assessing student performance. But the shift to the Common Core State Standards meant it would have to go.

The PAARC tests, used in states such as Illinois and New Jersey since 2015, were supposed to be even better. Not the joy-killing machines ruining childhood, as so many critics have portrayed standardized tests, but true measures of whether children were learning the key skills they would need as grown-ups: how to think critically, solve problems, make a convincing argument, and write a coherent paragraph.

Instead, the uproar over testing has only gotten louder. The increased difficulty of PARCC and other Common Core-aligned exams sent pass rates plummeting, while teacher evaluations linked to scores have fueled union-led fights, including those now unfolding in Massachusetts. And the continued use of multiple-choice questions has parents, teachers, and kids questioning whether the new tests could be much better than what they were replacing.

Amid the controversy, the Massachusetts Board of Education decided last fall to create an MCAS/PARCC hybrid unique to this state. Officials and educators are optimistic that by retaining control over the test, they will help preserve Massachusetts’s spot at the top of the US educational pack.

Meanwhile, many parents and educators are hoping the state will take into consideration another important question: What is a good test? The state surely can’t devise a test students enjoy taking. But can it design one that, rather than dictating what students learn, captures what they know in a fair way? “I really want to see us get away from teaching for a test and letting the test support the educators’ goals in teaching our children,” says Angelina Camacho, a parent of a second-grader at a Boston public school. “The test should be illuminating the actual capacity of our students.”

Experts talk about testing in scientific terms: A test needs to be “valid and reliable” and “discriminate” among different levels of proficiency. While these words have precise definitions in the field of psychometrics, the experts essentially want the same thing parents and teachers want: a math test that doesn’t measure students’ reading comprehension but whether they can add fractions; an English test that doesn’t measure what students know about the Revolutionary War but how well they can use sample text to support an argument.

It’s a simple goal to talk about but far harder to pull off.

ON THE SURFACE, MCAS looks a lot like your typical state exam: a pencil-and-paper test, made up mostly of multiple-choice questions and some open-ended ones. But because Massachusetts had some of the most highly regarded standards in the country and the test was closely aligned to them, it earned a reputation as a bright spot in the testing world soon after it debuted in 1998. Massachusetts became a leader in national assessments in math, reading, and science.

But the national accolades for the MCAS didn’t mean everyone embraced it. As with other standardized tests, MCAS critics said it both pressured teachers to teach to the test and caused students undue stress — particularly the high schoolers who must pass the 10th-grade exam to graduate. A few teachers I spoke to said it wasn’t uncommon for them to disagree with the test results for individual students, although others said they trusted the scores. I heard similar things from students. “It’s a good representation of what you see in the classroom,” says Jodalis Gonzalez, a senior at Boston Prep, a charter school in Hyde Park. “That’s one thing I really appreciated.”

Mitchell Chester, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, says that MCAS, for the most part, has served the state well but that the time to make a change has come, even if Common Core hadn’t hastened the decision. The test has been given 19 times, Chester says. “Like anything that is going to be first-class, you need to upgrade from time to time.” PARCC was supposed to represent that upgrade in Massachusetts.

The first way PARCC differs from MCAS is that it’s designed to be given on a computer, although schools are allowed to use a paper-based version while they improve their technology. Computers can potentially help assess knowledge and skills in a variety of ways that would be more difficult to score on a paper test. A PARCC math question, for instance, may require students to first create an equation to prove they understand how to solve the problem, then type in the correct answer. A multiple-choice question might have more than one answer, to see if students can identify various synonyms of a word or equivalent fractions. For a deeper check of reading comprehension, students might be required to drag and drop events in a story in the correct order.

The MCAS test has been given 19 times since 1998. “Like anything that is going to be first-class, you need to upgrade from time to time,” says Mitchell Chester, Massachusetts commissioner of elementary and secondary education.

Common Core demands students go beyond rote memorization and demonstrate critical-thinking skills. Underscoring this goal, PARCC uses performance tasks, open-ended questions that require students to work through multi-step, realistic problems. One performance task, for instance, asks third-graders to read two articles about the Arctic and then write a letter using “ideas and facts from both articles” to persuade a friend that people and animals can live there.

(In terms of costs, performance tasks are more expensive to score than multiple-choice exams. But a 2015 state analysis found that, on the whole, PARCC costs $32 per student on average — $10 less than MCAS. And though the cost for PARCC was expected to rise, the report found “there is no clear conclusion that either assessment program is more or less expensive than the other.”)

Many educators in Massachusetts and elsewhere, however, have said that while the content of the new Common Core tests may demand more of their students, the technology enhancements are often just window dressing on items that could as easily follow a simpler multiple-choice format. Others worry the content itself is too challenging. For example, one Arlington third-grade teacher says she could imagine her students needing to reread a passage six times to find the two snippets of text that lead them to the correct definition of “teeming.” And there are still problems with taking the exam on a computer: Students can only see a few lines of text at a time while writing an essay, for instance, making it hard to effectively edit their work.

Communities across the nation have struggled with PARCC. Seventeen out of 26 states that initially committed to using the test in 2010 have since dropped out — some without ever trying it out — and an 18th state, Louisiana, is only using part of PARCC. In the spring of 2015, tens of thousands of students in New Jersey and other states opted out of taking the tests altogether. Technological glitches also meant some schools had to halt testing in the middle of exams.

In Massachusetts, the reception has so far been mixed. The state’s plan had long been for a slow transition to the PARCC, and in 2015, each district was able to choose whether to give the new test or stick to MCAS. In Boston, Worcester, and Springfield, individual schools within each district were given the choice. (The decision to offer both came at a cost, with the state needing to raise its annual assessment budget from $32 million to $37 million).

Some parents and educators felt strongly that the new test would push students to think more deeply, a view shared by Chester, who also served as chairman of the PARCC consortium’s governing board and was a driving force in bringing the test to Massachusetts. But a vocal contingent from the roughly half of school districts that had elected to take the PARCC reported poor experiences in their first run, either with technological snafus or the content itself. Education experts around the country began to wonder how big a blow Massachusetts would serve to the already beleaguered consortium if it left.

Still, the state Board of Education would need to make a final choice between MCAS and PARCC in November. As the deadline approached, the consortium made a game-changing announcement: Rather than forcing member states to use the whole test, it would  let them use individual questions a la carte. Faced with answering a multiple-choice question by (A) keeping MCAS or (B) fully committing to PARCC, the board went with the new option (C). In what some describe as a political decision meant to appease PARCC critics, the board decided the new Massachusetts test would be an amalgam of the MCAS, PARCC, and yet-to-be-written items. Chester, who was the first to suggest this compromise, calls the new test MCAS 2.0.

The 2.0 version won’t begin until 2017, so Massachusetts school districts again took either the PARCC or MCAS in grades 3 through 8 this year (the assessment budget was again bumped up by $5 million).

Boston-area educators have heard rumors that the hybrid exam will closely resemble PARCC in the end — but Chester says that largely depends on the feedback the state gets from teachers and principals. “If they tell us that very little of what’s been developed on PARCC is helpful and relevant, then we’ll use very little,” he says. “If they tell us a lot is aligned, we’ll use a lot.”

As MCAS 2.0 evolves, the state has created 13 committees and work groups to provide insight from teachers and others. One committee is taking another look at how the Common Core is incorporated into Massachusetts standards, to see if that needs any refinement. A test administration team will debate how many test sessions there should be and whether the tests should be timed (as PARCC is) or untimed (as MCAS has been). The Digital Learning Advisory Council, an existing group, will discuss how districts are progressing toward the state goal of total online testing by 2019.


No White Males Allowed

It’s not just the American educational system that has been overrun by buttercup Bolsheviks and social justice warriors hell bent on ousting any speaker or professor that doesn’t conform to their new and enlightened view of the world. The ivory towers in England are equally full of people pushing the bounds of absurdity. The union that represents brits working in higher education across the UK, University and College Union, banned straight white males from attending their equality conferences. On the application to sign up for the conferences, the union asks would-be attendees to describe their “protected characteristic.” If they don’t have some kind of identity with which to cry grievance, attendees are banned from speaking up during breakout sessions, called — you guessed it — “safe spaces.”

As Cat Reid of Heat Street writes, “[E]xcluding straight, white men from taking part in these conferences completely undermines their point. How are people expected to tackle minority issues when, in the most crass manner, one of the root causes of that problem is specifically excluded from participating — as though it didn’t exist? It is also incredibly ignorant to suggest that white men cannot — and don’t want to — fight for equality.”

However, the union’s decision highlights one thing of liberal thought: They are not interested in dialogue and listening to all the voices involved. “Equality” is all about an agenda. Talking (by some people) is not going to be tolerated.


When veterans need not apply

Northwestern profs decide a distinguished soldier isn't good enough

If you wonder what has become of us since the Greatest Generation began leaving the stage, consider this elegant 19th century warning from Victorian statesman and author, Sir William Francis Butler:

"The nation that will insist on drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking done by cowards."

Despite that timeless advice, foolishness and political correctness recently joined hands at elite Northwestern University, neatly tucked away in Chicago's toniest suburbs. As the Chicago Tribune reported last week, faculty opposition caused retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry to withdraw his name from a tentative appointment to head the university's new institute on global studies.

Top officials at Northwestern had clearly viewed this prospective appointment as a huge win. In addition to his military rank, Gen. Eikenberry was deputy head of the NATO military committee, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and a distinguished public servant, intimately familiar with foreign cultures and decision-making at the highest levels of government. Then there was his gig at the newly minted Buffett Institute, underwritten by a $100 million grant from business magnate Warren Buffett's sister, one of the largest research grants ever awarded to Northwestern. What could possibly go wrong?

Alas, the president and provost of Northwestern had obviously neglected a standard piece of academic wisdom, namely that faculty meetings are so vicious because the stakes are so small. Normally they are: But that whole ballgame changes when the faculty's animal cunning is alerted that now, suddenly, something has arrived on campus that might be worth stealing.

Things at Northwestern began going south back in February. An "open letter on behalf of academic integrity" was signed by 46 faculty members but quickly became notorious for dismissing Gen. Eikenberry as a "non-academic career military officer" too closely aligned with American foreign policy to run a truly independent institute. Last week's Tribune article quoted a professor of foreign languages who insisted, "It wasn't because this guy was military. That wasn't the case at all." But as Max Boot sniffed in Commentary, "Apparently soldiers are good enough to fight and die for our freedom but are not good enough to teach our students. They are too biased, you see - in favor of America!"

The Northwestern campus is hardly alone as a stronghold of leftist orthodoxy and elitism. But we should be even more concerned with what this episode suggests about the widening gap between American society and those who defend us. Ironically, Karl Eikenberry is one of the most perceptive observers of that ominous trend. In a widely noted 2013 Washington Quarterly article, he wrote about the "political decoupling of the military from the American people" that not only impaired congressional oversight but even compromised our civic virtue. "We collectively claim the need for robust armed forces and yet as individuals we do not wish to be troubled with any personal responsibility for manning the frontier."

But maybe that kind of thing happens when only 1 percent of that society ever serves in uniform, or what I have called in previous books and columns our national tendency to fight wars using "other people's kids." That trend was also an abiding concern of a Northwestern scion, the late professor Charles Moskos, a dear friend and once the dean of American military sociology. Charley wrote a host of influential books and articles, even coining the phrase that our defense manpower policy had "achieved the GI Bill without getting the GI." While on a peacekeeping deployment to Bosnia in the late ‘90s, I looked up in surprise to see Charley right there with us, administering a soldier personnel survey while trying in vain to keep his Kevlar helmet on straight.

I can only imagine what Charley might have concluded about his university's latest demonstration that the American soldier has become separated decisively from the state he or she has sworn to protect with their lives. Would he have simply urged us to re-read The Federalist Papers - to revisit the idea that our armed forces are not "them" but "us"? Or would he have suggested that we study anew the uncertain histories of nations that have allowed service to country to molder into a dead letter?

I leave it to others to judge whether the 46 members of the Northwestern faculty who signed that odious petition are worthy, either of their tenured appointments or as successors to professor Charles Moskos. However, I sincerely question whether they really deserve the freedom purchased for them by those who wear the uniform, those soldier-citizens who bore the fight and should never be told: "Sorry, but veterans need not apply."


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