Massachusetts May Adopt Weaker Common Core Standards
In an apparent reversal of a decade-old policy, Massachusetts education officials are considering plans to scrap the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) standardized exams and adopt national core curriculum frameworks.
Historically, Massachusetts has refused to work with other states to develop a common testing system. State education officials now say they are open to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a project of the National Governors Association (NGA) joined by 48 states.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said adopting the Common Core standards would be an important step for states applying for the second round of Race to the Top funding.
State Begins Adoption Process
Sandra Stotsky, a member of the Massachusetts Board of Education and a critic of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, says the Bay State has already begun the process of adopting the national curriculum frameworks.
“The state Department of Education is joining the Achieve-led testing consortium as of its June application,” Stotsky said. Achieve is an independent, nonprofit education reform organization co-founded by the NGA and several corporations, based in Washington, DC.
“The rules of the request for reform are that a ‘governing state,’ which Massachusetts will be in that consortium, must commit itself to using the assessments that are developed, within four years or so, and must adopt by December 2011, if not sooner, Common Core’s standards,” Stotsky explained.
Stotsky’s term on the 11-member state school board expires June 30, and she still hasn’t heard whether Gov. Deval Patrick (D) will reappoint her. “It looks like the board will be adopting Common Core’s standards at a special meeting on July 21, after I am off the board,” she said.
Common Core’s Standards Criticized
Stotsky says Common Core’s standards are not as stringent as the state’s existing assessment standards, though the final draft is “much stronger than the January draft,” she said.
However, “Common Core’s English Language standards are not as strong as the 2001 or the revised 2009 state standards,” Stotsky said.
Among the problems with the Common Core math standards, Stotsky said, is the potential for a two-tiered math curriculum.
“Common Core’s high school math standards suggest high schools may have to offer two levels of Algebra 1, two levels of geometry, and two levels of Algebra 2, to [give] low-achieving students the possibility of passing a test that declares them college-ready,” she said. Selective colleges and universities would know the difference between the standards aimed at low-achievers and those for high-achievers, Stotsky noted.
MCAS Test to Be Replaced
Massachusetts could continue to keep the MCAS system for administering science and technology exams as required to graduate in the state. Adopting the Common Core standards would require new exams for English and math.
“Legally, state tests need to be based on state standards,” Stotsky said. “If the board votes to adopt Common Core’s standards, that will clear the path for common assessments that can be given to Massachusetts students in place of MCAS.”
“I can’t say that this will be good or bad until more is known about what these tests will be like, in English language and math, and what the cut scores will be,” she added.
Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester says the Common Core standards will be “strong, challenging, and bold,” but he refuses to say whether the state will actually adopt them.
“While we have played a leadership role in their development, we have made no commitment to ultimately adopt these standards,” Chester said in a June 2 statement. “Instead we have made clear that Massachusetts will do so only after conducting a comprehensive review of the final drafts to ensure they are as strong as—or stronger than—our current standards.”
No Public Comment Time
Jeff Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a Massachusetts-based policy research group, noted the absence of any public comment period to discuss the pros and cons of adopting the Common Core standards.
“We are taking one of the most important steps in education policy without any real vetting,” Stergios said.
The state education department is reportedly seeking an outside group to study the new Common Core frameworks alongside the current Bay State standards. “I’ve heard that there may be an organization invited by the Commissioner or possibly the Hunt Institute to do a comparative analysis of the Massachusetts’ standards up against the proposed national standards,” Stergios said. The Hunt Institute is an education reform think-tank backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
“The Department and secretary of education said in their [Race to the Top] application that they plan to adopt the Common Core Standards by August 2, 2010,” said Stergios. “That sure sounds like they are adopting the standards.”
Sarah McIntosh (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches constitutional law and American politics at Wichita State University in Kansas.