By Lisa Hagen
The Boston University Statehouse Program
BOSTON -- Old controversies over who should set education standards are flaring up again as Massachusetts moves toward new federal-based curriculum and standardized testing designed to prepare students for college and careers beyond high school.
The terms may be new -- for example, PARCC replaces MCAS as a focal point in the education debate -- but the core debate over who sets standards for the state's schoolchildren is heating up again.
"It is a sound violation of local control, and the federal government has no right to be meddling with education," said William Gillmeister, a member of the Tantasqua School Committee, which governs a school district for grades 7-12 in five towns in Hampden and Worcester counties.
The committee has adopted resolutions urging state lawmakers to oppose Common Core educational standards that have been adopted by 45 states including the District of Columbia since 2010.
"I don't understand why it is Massachusetts has to spend likely billions of dollars in establishing standards when the state has arguably the best curriculum educational standards in the nation," Gillmeister said.
States were encouraged to adopt these standards through the promise of federal grants from Race to the Top, a program created by the Obama administration to encourage changes in education.
Gillmeister said the Tantasqua School Committee has not yet received any federal grants from Race to the Top.
The state is also moving forward with its two-year pilot program of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), the K-12 online assessment that would replace the math and English sections of MCAS.
Massachusetts is one of 19 states, including the District of Columbia that is part of a nationwide PARCC consortium.
Mitchell Chester, state education commissioner and chair of the national PARCC Governing Board, said the state will decide in three years whether to fully implement the test. He said 80 percent to 90 percent of schools are in the process of transitioning to Common Core standards.
Chester said more than 1,000 schools will participate in the field test next spring. The following spring, he said about half of the state's school districts will administer PARCC.
"Phasing the test in this way gives districts a chance to get to know the new assessment and get feedback," he said. "We want to be confident when we do make the decision that there is an improvement over our current MCAS condition."
Chester said MCAS is not an accurate indicator about whether students are being prepared for college or pursuing a career after graduation. He said PARCC will provide more timely information about students' success and their readiness to move on.
"The main benefits are that PARCC requires students to apply knowledge at each grade level," Chester said.
But Jamie Gass, director of the Center for School Reform at the nonprofit conservative think tank Pioneer Institute, cautioned that PARCC focuses less on classic literature, drama and poetry, which he said strengthens the vocabulary of students.
He believes the switch to Common Core is one of the reasons for the decline of fourth-grade reading scores, which he said is a good predictor of future academic success.
"We've known for several years that the reading scores are stagnating or declining, especially with low-income students, and (PARCC) is an unnecessary transition that is not going to help things out and create greater confusion and less continuity," Gass said.
Doug McRae, a retired educational measurement specialist from California who designed large-scale testing programs for K-12, said it is difficult to measure a student's readiness for either higher education or the broad spectrum of careers available now and in the future.
"How you measure career readiness out of high school is very hard to do," McRae said. "There is a differentiation of skills needed in education for a wide range of careers that they can get into."
Some local school officials are giving the new curriculum high marks. Jason DiCarlo, principal at Murkland Elementary School in Lowell, said the implementation of Common Core into its curriculum three years ago has been positive for both students and teachers.
But DiCarlo cautioned that the school needs to help teachers adjust their curriculums and survey the student body to see how the standards impact each student while Murkland continues to transition to Common Core.
"Teachers need to be supported rolling out or understanding Common Core standards," DiCarlo said. "We need to ease some of the uncertainties and the growing pains (of implementing new standards)."
Three years ago, Murkland received a Level 4 rating for low MCAS scores in third- grade reading proficiency. Andriolo believes the school's jump to Level 1 after the most recent MCAS scores was partly due to Murkland's implementation of Common Core and its emphasis on critical thinking.
Assistant Principal Kevin Andriolo also credited the teachers for helping Murkland achieve its three-year goal of improving test scores.
"What we've seen is that teachers have had the opportunity to develop curriculum from the ground up based upon the standards," he said.
Andriolo said one of the major differences between the MCAS and PARCC tests is the phrasing of questions. For the math section, the old standards had problem-solving questions with verbs such as "select" and "use." The new standards ask the same questions, changing the word to "apply."
"Verbs require students to use high-order thinking skills versus previous standards, which was more procedure based," Andriolo said. "(Common Core) implies you have to use more thinking as a student."
Strategies for Children, a nonprofit organization that promotes early education, sees the shift to PARCC and Common Core as beneficial to young students.
Amy O'Leary, the group's campaign director, said the new test and curriculum focus on career and college readiness at a younger age. She said educators and parents cannot wait until kindergarten to start teaching children.
"One thing we do see in Common Core literacy lens is that it highlights the importance of world language, which is a key predictor of how they will do in reading proficiency," said Kelly Kulsrud, the group's director of reading proficiency.
Since PARCC will test students from different demographics and socio-economic backgrounds, O'Leary said educators will need to work together to make sure resources, such as computers, will be available to schools and students where it is most needed.
"It is not a one-size-fits-all solution," O'Leary said. "Our job is to keep the conversation going and recognize momentum when it is happening across the country."