Co-Author of 1993 MA Ed Reform Act Concerned About Current Policies

Former Massachusetts Senate President Tom Birmingham
Photo Credit: Rappaport Center (CC-By-2.0)

Massachusetts Education Reform Act co-author and Former Massachusetts Senate President Tom Birmingham, who now serves as a distinguished senior fellow in education at the Pioneer Institute, spoke at an event at the Massachusetts State House marking the education reform act’s 25th Anniversary.

Birmingham praised the historic success that has been achieved since the law was enacted in 1993:

If you had told me then that more than 90 percent of our students would pass MCAS and that we would have 13 consecutive years of improvement on SAT scores, or that our students would rank first in the nation in every category and in every grade tested on NAEP between 2005 and 2013, and that they would place at or near the top on gold-standard international math and science tests like the TIMSS, I would have thought you were unrealistically optimistic. We all had ambitious hopes for education reform on that day 25 years ago, but I doubt any of us would have dared to predict the historic successes we have actually enjoyed under the Act.

He shared what K-12 education in Massachusetts was like before the bill:

Before 1993, we witnessed the grossest disparities in spending on our public schools. In some districts we were spending more than $10,000 per child per annum and in others we were spending $3,000. In those circumstances to pretend that we were affording our children anything remotely approaching equal educational opportunity was nothing short of fraudulent.

And the academic quality of education was materially different in virtually every school district across the Commonwealth. Partly as a result of those disparities in spending, the state did precious little to insist on uniform standards. Pre-1993 there were but two state-imposed requirements to get a high school diploma: one year of American history and four years of gym. Clearly a testament more to the lobbying prowess of gym teachers than to any coherent pedagogical vision.

But the Education Reform Act strove to change all this; to change the state funding mechanism and the academic expectations for all our students. I believe we have largely succeeded.

Addressing Massachusetts current standards and tests he said:

With regard to standards and tests, we have jettisoned our tried and true reliance on higher-quality academic standards and MCAS and replaced them with inferior Common Core standards and PARCC testing. It’s worth noting that the PARCC consortia has now lost over two-thirds of its member states; hardly a ringing endorsement. I fear the implementation of Common Core and MCAS 2.0, which is a rebranded version of PARCC, has contributed to Massachusetts being a negative growth state on NAEP reading and math between 2011 and 2015.

Why Massachusetts would settle for having the same English, math, or science standards and rebranded PARCC tests as do Arkansas or Louisiana, whose students could not possible meet Massachusetts performance levels, is puzzling to me. The Common Core and its PARCC-style testing regime represent one of those rare instances where what may be good for the nation as a whole is bad for Massachusetts.

Read his full remarks here.

HT: Pioneer Institute

With New MCAS-PARCC Hybrid Half of Massachusetts Students Fall Short

Common Core is so rigorous! It’s going to help prepare students for college and career! We’ll see higher rates of student achievement!

Well, perhaps not so much. Massachusetts used to be the crème de la crème of K-12 education. Now according to the new MCAS-PARCC hybrid assessment, half of their students fall short.

The Boston Herald reported this week:

The results may come as a surprise to many students who passed or scored “proficient” on the previous test, but this year’s test was tougher and raised the bar for expectations.

This year, state education officials said, should be considered a baseline year, and they expect scores to change over time as schools adjust.

In other words, the results do not mean individual students declined, but that the new test measures education in a different, more accurate way, officials said.

“It doesn’t mean that your child has changed from last year to this year,” said Jacqueline Reis, DESE spokeswoman. “It’s that we’re sending a clearer signal.”

“This isn’t because we have failing schools,” said Acting Commissioner Jeff Wulfson. “This is because we want to make sure our kids are ready for college work. When we have 80 percent of kids scoring proficient and then needing college-remedial work, we’re not doing them any favors.”

The story, of course, reports that the assessment is “tougher,” but does not explain how. How was the bar raised? How are the results more accurate? I think the state’s Common Core cheerleaders should answer why only half of the state’s students are proficient after several years with the new standards.

Rhode Island Introduces a New Assessment

Back in April, Rhode Island decided to dump PARCC. They partnered with Massachusetts to develop their new assessment to be administered in May that will be shorter than what students took last week.

WPRI Channel 12 previewed the new assessment:

When Rhode Island public school students begin taking their standardized test in May, they’ll be staring at an exam that looks similar to the one they’ve been taking for the last three years.

But the new Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS) will be about 85 minutes shorter per grade than the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test, according to Mary Ann Snider, the deputy commissioner for teaching and learning at the R.I. Department of Education.

With more than half of the 24 states that initially planned to use the PARCC backing away from it in recent years, Snider said Rhode Island thought it would be wise to partner with Massachusetts, which first developed the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) in 1993.

The MCAS has evolved over the years and will now include elements of the PARCC exam, but Snider said Massachusetts has a “proven assessment system.” She noted that Rhode Island has long partnered with other states on standardized exams, including the the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) and the PARCC.

I’m not certain if, like Massachusetts, Rhode Island’s assessment will be a MCAS-PARCC hybrid. I’m doubtful as the state withdrew from PARCC as a member, but, again, I’m not certain. PARCC’s membership has dwindled to Colorado, District of Columbia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New Mexico.

I will emphasize that their assessment is still Common Core-aligned.

Rhode Island Rejects PARCC for PARCC Hybrid

Rhode Island is ditching PARCC.

The Providence Journal reports:

Rhode Island is abandoning a controversial standardized test called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career for the exam that Massachusetts has successfully used for nearly 20 years.

Rep. Gregg Amore, D-East Providence, chairman of the House Finance Committee’s education subcommittee, confirmed Thursday that the Rhode Island Department of Education has decided to adopt the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), which the Bay State administers to measure student achievement.

In high school, 10th graders will take the popular SAT or PSAT. Many states have adopted the college entrance exams in high school because they are well-respected by students, parents and teachers and because they are widely used as part of the college admissions process.

First, they are still using PARCC; this test is a hybrid of the old MCAS and PARCC. I posted on this when Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester made the following recommendations.

  • Award a new MCAS contract to include a next-generation assessment for English language arts and math using both PARCC items and items specific to Massachusetts;
  • Commit to computer-based state assessments with the goal of implementing this statewide by spring 2019;
  • Remain a member of the PARCC consortium to have access to high-quality assessment development while sharing costs with other states and to be able to compare next-generation MCAS results with those of other states’ assessments; and
  • Convene groups of K-12 teachers, higher education faculty and assessment experts to advise ESE on the content, length and scheduling of statewide tests; testing policies for students with disabilities and for English language learners; the requirements for the high school competency determination (currently the 10th grade MCAS); and the timeline for reinstating a history and social science test.

MCAS 2.0 is not the quality pre-2011 MCAS that was part of reforms that led to Massachusetts leading the nation in K-12 education. Until Rhode Island abandons Common Core, they will never have a quality assessment. The Every Student Succeeds Act requires alignment between a state’s assessment and academic standards.

I also wouldn’t get excited about the new requirement for 10th graders to take the new Common Core-aligned SAT and PSAT.

Massachusetts Common Core Ballot Initiative Stopped in Court

The John Adams Courthouse in Boston, MA is home to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.Photo Credit: Swampyank (CC-By-3.0)

The John Adams Courthouse in Boston, MA is home to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
Photo Credit: Swampyank (CC-By-3.0)

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that the language in the Common Core ballot initiative is unconstitutional.

In their opinion they wrote:

We conclude, as the plaintiffs argue, that the Attorney General’s certification of Initiative Petition 15- 12 did not comply with art. 48, The Initiative, II, § 3, of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution because it contains provisions that are not related or mutually dependent.

They further explain:

An initiative petition properly may contain only subjects “which are related or which are mutually dependent.” Art. 48, The Initiative, II, § 3. The two subjects in this petition are clearly not “mutually dependent.” In fact, the opposite seems true. That is, whether the diagnostic assessment tests are based on the common core standards or some previous set of academic standards — the focus of sections 1 through 3 of the petition — will not affect in any way the commissioner’s obligation under section 4 to release before the start of every school year all of the previous year’s test items in order to inform educators about the testing process; the commissioner’s obligation will exist independently of the specific curriculum content on which the tests are based.

In a nutshell they said voters are in an untenable situation to vote yes or no on both the standards and the assessment because those are two separate, distinct questions. Had the standards and the assessment been two separate ballot questions that may have satisfied the Court on this particular issue. They didn’t rule on the other claims made by the plaintiff.

Donna Colorio of End Common Core Massachusetts expressed disappointment in the ruling in a released statement:

No emotions can express how disappointed we are with the decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today.

Parents, educators, and concerned citizens collected over 100,000 signatures to put this critical question on the ballot, and their voices have been silenced by this disastrous ruling.

This ruling is an example of big special interest money using intimidation tactics with scores of lawyers and public relations machines to do what is best for them and drown out the voices of the people.  The special interests behind Common Core do not want an open and fair debate about education in Massachusetts, so they rely on legal maneuvers and technicalities to control public education in Massachusetts.

The ones who really lost are the students.  They are the ones most negatively affected by this ruling.

We are not sure what the next steps may be, but we are exploring all of our options.  There was never a doubt in our mind that if the truth was brought before the voters in November, Common Core would have ended in Massachusetts and the very best standards in the nation would have been restored.

The special interests may have won this time, but ultimately the people will prevail and overcome a corrupted system that does not represent the children and their future.

We will continue to fight for our children and try to make sure Massachusetts has the best possible education for our students.

Fordham Institutes’s PARCC v. MCAS Report Falls Short


(Pioneer Institute)  The Fordham Institute has long been at work on a study of the relative quality of tests produced by the two Common Core-aligned and federally funded consortia (PARCC and SBAC), ACT (Aspire), and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (MCAS).  What Fordham has produced is only in the most superficial way an actual analysis – in fact, it reads more like propaganda and lacks the basic elements of objective research. 

It takes only a little digging under the surface to reveal pervasive conflicts of interest, a one-sided sourcing of evidence, and a research design so slanted it cannot stand against any scrutiny. In developing their supposedly analytic comparisons of PARCC, SBAC, Aspire and MCAS, the authors do not employ standard test evaluation criteria, organizations, or reviewers. Instead, they employ criteria developed by the Common Core co-copyright holder, organizations paid handsomely in the past by Common Core’s funders, and predictable reviewers who have worked for them before. The authors also fill the report with the typical vocabulary and syntax of Common Core advertising – positive-sounding adjectives and adverbs are attached to everything Common Core, and negative-sounding adjectives and adverbs are attached to the alternatives. 

No reader should take the report seriously; those who produced the report did not. Fordham Institute used to do serious work; in the area of assessments and standards, sadly, that is no longer the case.

Read a policy brief entitled “Fordham Institute’s Pretend Research” by Richard Phelps below:

Using Two Assessments Could Cost Massachusetts Some Title 1 Funding


Those who advocated for the Every Student Succeeds Act kept telling us that it was going to restore state and local control. Here is another example that talking point is a complete sham.

When Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester announced that the state would utilize a MCAS-PARCC hybrid assessment starting in the spring of 2017 he also stated schools could use either MCAS or PARCC this coming Spring.  Playing the Grinch on Christmas week the U.S. Department of Education warned that the Bay State could end up losing some federal funding as a result.

The Boston Globe reports:

The US Department of Education has warned Massachusetts that it could lose a modest amount of federal funding because the state plans to administer two standardized tests this spring as it develops a new assessment.

The warning was issued Monday in a letter from a DOE administrator to Mitchell D. Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education. It pointed out that states are required to administer a single test to all students by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, recently reauthorized by Congress as the Every Student Succeeds Act….

….Massachusetts obtained a federal waiver on the single-test requirement in 2011 to try out the PARCC — the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test — which was under consideration as a replacement for the state’s longstanding MCAS test.

Both that waiver and a subsequent extension have now expired, according to the letter to Chester from Ann Whalen, a top federal education official.

The state’s violation of the act triggered Whalen to declare Massachusetts “high risk,” putting in jeopardy some of the federal funding the state receives under Title I, which helps fund schools with high percentages of children from low-income families.

Whalen’s letter did not specify how much federal money might be withheld if Massachusetts fails to switch to a single test by next spring.

This is exactly why the U.S. Department of Education should not be entrusted to approve state accountability plans. Educrats have been way too much latitude.

Massachusetts Education Commissioner Recommends MCAS-PARCC Hybrid

massachusetts-state-flagMassachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester announced today he recommends the state use a “Next Generation MCAS” that would be first used in spring of 2017 and use items from PARCC and the current MCAS along with items specifically designed for the state assessment.

The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will vote on his recommendation at their next meeting on November 17.

The commissioner’s memo calls for the state to:

  • Award a new MCAS contract to include a next-generation assessment for English language arts and math using both PARCC items and items specific to Massachusetts;
  • Commit to computer-based state assessments with the goal of implementing this statewide by spring 2019;
  • Remain a member of the PARCC consortium in order to have access to high-quality assessment development while sharing costs with other states and to be able to compare next-generation MCAS results with those of other states’ assessments; and
  • Convene groups of K-12 teachers, higher education faculty and assessment experts to advise ESE on the content, length and scheduling of statewide tests; testing policies for students with disabilities and for English language learners; the requirements for the high school competency determination (currently the 10th grade MCAS); and the timeline for reinstating a history and social science test.

It should be noted that Mitchell Chester serves as chair on the governing board of PARCC so to say he has conflict of interest here would be an understatement.  The fact that he’s willing to forgo the adoption of the entire PARCC assessment shows the amount of pressure the grassroots is placing upon Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s administration.

The Pioneer Institute which is located in Massachusetts responded to the news:

We applaud the Baker administration for proposing that Massachusetts retain its academic independence and testing autonomy, but the Commonwealth should reject any further participation in the PARCC consortium.

MCAS has served Massachusetts very well for nearly two decades. The test and the pre-Common Core standards were the key to Massachusetts’ leadership position that was forged by the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act and demonstrated by historic gains on national and international tests.

As its name suggests, “Next-Generation MCAS” should largely be based on the pre-2011 MCAS and, where appropriate, include questions and modes from other models such as PARCC. This will provide continuity and foster accountability by allowing performance to be measured over time.

Next-Generation MCAS should also use questions developed by Massachusetts educators and academics, and reinstate the practice of releasing all or nearly all of the questions after tests are administered to help classroom teachers shape instruction.

As Next-Generation MCAS is being developed, it is imperative that both the 10th-grade MCAS and the state English and math standards be restored to their pre-Common Core academic quality. The previous standards and MCAS made Massachusetts the envy of the country and the only state that truly is internationally competitive.

The five-year Common Core-PARCC detour needs to be abandoned. It has damaged the standing of the Commonwealth’s students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and undermined the academic quality needed to perpetuate the ideals of our democracy, deliver true equity to underserved students, and compete in the global economy.

Study: MCAS Less Expensive, More Rigorous and Provides Better Information than PARCC

massachusetts-state-flagIn the wake of an apparent shift by Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester making it increasingly likely that Massachusetts will update MCAS rather than adopt English and math assessments developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a new study published by Pioneer Institute concludes that revising and updating MCAS would result in lower costs and more rigorous assessments that would provide better information about student performance.

“The research leads us to support keeping MCAS and making it an even better test,” said Jim Stergios, Pioneer’s executive director. “We are all for an MCAS 2.0, but that means pre-2011 MCAS should be the starting point for new assessments and test items, not PARCC.”

“How PARCC’s False Rigor Stunts the Academic Growth of all Students” compares PARCC, which is based on Common Core’s K-12 English and math standards, to pre-Common Core MCAS reading and writing tests. Among its many findings, the study demonstrates that PARCC fails to meet the accountability provisions set forth in the state’s Memorandum of Understanding with the U.S. Department of Education in order to qualify for Race to the Top funding in 2010.

The pre-Common Core MCAS tests were chosen in part because MCAS is now based on Common Core standards, not the state’s pre-2011 standards. Pre-Common Core MCAS tests were also chosen because of the dumbing down of 10th grade MCAS tests. For years, MCAS results mirrored state performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). In 2013, that remained true for 4th and 8th grade MCAS tests. But that year, while 80 percent of students scored “advanced” or “proficient” on MCAS 10th grade math and 91 percent on the English test, the numbers were just 34 percent in math and 43 percent in English on the corresponding high school NAEP tests.

What was at the very least a failure by the state to maintain the academic rigor of 10th grade MCAS tests is one reason why the authors recommend that MCAS 2.0 be developed by an entity independent of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

When Chester, who also chairs PARCC’s governing board, announced his apparent shift, he cited the importance of maintaining state control over student assessments. Pioneer Institute has argued against tying the Commonwealth to the faltering PARCC consortium, which once boasted 26 member states but today includes just seven or eight largely low performers. With the number of potential test-takers in these states falling from 30 million to under five million, PARCC’s viability and ability to maintain its current pricing are in question.

The inability of students in states like New Mexico to pass tests at the level of their Massachusetts counterparts would, over time, create pressure to reduce the tests’ rigor.

The authors also dispute claims that PARCC could simultaneously determine whether students are academically eligible for a high school diploma and ensure college readiness. High school is radically different than college, and the academic demands of various post-secondary programs vary dramatically. Our international competitors use different tests for high school graduation and entrance to post-secondary education.

Despite claims that PARCC would do a better job ensuring that students are “college- and career-ready,” a recent study found that PARCC assessments were no better at predicting college readiness than MCAS – even though grade 10 MCAS tests have been dumbed down.

PARCC would also force schools to devote many more hours to testing, leaving less time for classroom instruction. By the time he or she graduated from high school, the average student would spend almost three times as many hours taking PARCC tests than they would MCAS assessments.


Supporters also claim PARCC does a better job of testing “higher-order thinking.” In fact, its new types of test items are not research-based and not very good. They are often difficult to navigate and what passes for testing higher-order thinking are simply multi-step problems.

At the root of PARCC’s weaknesses are the Common Core standards to which they are tied. The authors call on the Commonwealth to phase out Common Core and PARCC, and to base a revised MCAS on Massachusetts’ pre-Common Core curriculum frameworks, updated by pertinent new research.

“How PARCC’s False Rigor Stunts the Academic Growth of all Students” was written by Mark McQuillan, Richard P. Phelps and Sandra Stotsky. McQuillan is former dean of the School of Education at Southern New Hampshire University and commissioner of education for the state of Connecticut. Prior to that, he was a deputy commissioner of education and a school superintendent in Massachusetts.

Richard P. Phelps is the author of four books on testing and founder of the Nonpartisan Education Review (

Sandra Stotsky is professor emerita at the University of Arkansas where she held the 21st Century Chair in Teacher Quality. Previously she was senior associate commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and a member of the Common Core Validation Committee.

You can read the study below.

Study Shows PARCC Does Not Gauge Readiness Better Than MCAS

massachusetts-state-flagPARCC has been plugged as being able to gauge readiness better than Massachusetts current assessment – MCAS.  A study released on Tuesday last week, which is the first analysis of PARCC’s ability compared with MCAS, shows otherwise.

The Boston Globe reports:

A test promoted as a more effective tool than the MCAS at measuring students’ college readiness is no better at predicting performance than the longstanding assessment, according to a new study commissioned by the state.

The results of the study are sure to fuel debate as the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education votes next month on whether to dump the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System and replace it with the PARCC — or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers exam.

Such a change would mean a daunting adjustment for many of the state’s public schools and nearly 1 million students, as they shift to a test designed to be taken on a computer, rather than paper and pencil. The new test would eventually replace the MCAS as a graduation requirement…

….Monty Neill, executive director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, said the study’s finding that both tests fared about as well at predicting performance as the SAT, commonly used as a factor in college acceptance, showed that all three are flawed.

“If the MCAS and the PARCC aren’t any better than SAT, then relying on the tests for college prediction puts Massachusetts really in a weak position,” Neill said.

FairTest, a Boston-based advocacy group, supports placing a moratorium on the use of standardized tests as a graduation requirement and developing a different and more comprehensive assessment system.