Politics & Policy

Massachusetts Deals a Bruising Blow to the Common Core

(Mquirk/Dreamstime)
A longtime leader in education won’t use tests based on the unpopular standards.

Massachusetts has announced the intention to abandon its steadfast commitment to the Common Core K–12 curriculum standards. Last week, on the recommendation of state education commissioner Mitchell Chester, the state’s education board decided to revamp its famed Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) and drop plans to retire MCAS for the Common Core–aligned PARCC test. Massachusetts will retain the MCAS but will tinker with the test by adding elements from the PARCC exam.

This reversal is a bruising blow to the Common Core, given Massachusetts’ iconic status as the nation’s longtime K–12 leader on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In fact, even though Common Core advocates conceded that Massachusetts’ standards were at least as good as those of the Common Core, they mounted a furious (and successful) push in 2009 and 2010 to get Massachusetts to adopt the Common Core — precisely because of the state’s symbolic importance. So even though plenty of states have abandoned the two Common Core–aligned tests (PARCC and Smarter Balanced), Massachusetts’ announcement drew national notice.

With the board’s decision, New York Times reporter Kate Zernike told PBS that the Common Core loses its “gold, Good Housekeeping seal of approval.” Adding insult to injury, Chester is the chair of the PARCC governing board  — meaning that one of the two federally funded Common Core test providers has just been thrown over by one of its own.

This departure continues an ignominious slide for PARCC. When the consortium applied for federal funding in 2010 through the Obama administration’s Race to the Top windfall, PARCC counted 26 participating states. Now just five states and the District of Columbia are still using the test. Meanwhile, PARCC’s counterpart, Smarter Balanced, is down by more than half, from 31 states to 15. Given that the Obama administration provided these two consortia with $350 million in taxpayer stimulus funds, it’s looking like the president’s  magic touch has done the same thing for education testing that it did for Healthcare.gov.

Back in 2009 and 2010, when the Common Core was adopted by a host of states ready to promise pretty much anything in exchange for Race to the Top funds, it was fueled by twin promises: It would “raise standards” and it would make it easier to compare how schools and states were faring in reading and math. The case for the first claim is far from settled; plenty of thoughtful observers find it overblown at best, and ludicrous at worst. (See my take on this debate, which ran last year in NRO, here.)

Goofy homework, bizarre new math, and an assault on fiction haven’t helped the cause of Common Core.

The second claim, regarding the potential benefits of common tests, has always been more plausible. In theory, common tests have much to recommend them. They can make it easier to compare the performance of schools, students, and educators and get apples-to-apples comparisons on the effects of different instructional interventions or training approaches. But the potential benefits of commonality hinge mightily on public confidence that the measures are valid and reliable, and that they are not distorting what happens in schools and classrooms.

The Common Core lobby has failed massively at fostering the requisite confidence. Its pursuit of stealthy, under-the-radar adoption and its enthusiasm for federal inducements raised concerns. Its arrogant dismissals of the ensuing questions raised hackles. Goofy homework, bizarre new math, and an assault on fiction haven’t helped the cause. The results are apparent in plunging poll numbers.

Common assessments are now farther and farther from being a reality. Well under half the nation’s students now live in states administering one of the two Common Core–aligned tests. And within states that do use one of those tests, fidelity to the tests is uneven. Things have gotten so bad that the PARCC consortium, once the darling of the “reform” community, recently felt compelled to announce that it will allow states to buy portions of its test from an “item bank” and select their own vendor to administer the test. This is a dramatic change from the old requirement that states had to buy the full test and have Pearson Education administer it. But the shift may not be that surprising, given that PARCC’s federal-funding agreement allows the consortium to be dissolved if five or fewer states are using its test.

Most states still have the Common Core standards on the books, but fewer and fewer are using Common Core tests. And, as Common Core advocates have always known, the standards are easy-to-ignore words on the page if they’re not tied to state tests. Meanwhile, few state leaders are any longer giving voice to the messianic fervor that once led Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to declare the Common Core the most important thing to happen in American education in half a century. The news from Massachusetts is just the latest reminder that federal coercion and supercilious intimidation may not be a winning strategy for pursuing that kind of change.

— Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at AEI. Jenn Hatfield is a research assistant at AEI.

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