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Massachusetts drops Common Core test, will develop own student evaluations

November 22, 2015 at 6:00 PM EDT  | Updated: Nov 23, 2015 at 2:00 PM
Massachusetts, a state considered a leader in education reform, decided last week to reject the Parcc test based on Common Core standards--a test still used in several other states. Instead, the state will develop its own exams to measure student progress. New York Times reporter Kate Zernike joins Alison Stewart with more.
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Editor’s note: This headline has been updated to clarify that Massachusetts is dropping the Parcc Common Core test. An earlier version stated the state will drop Common Core.

ALISON STEWART, PBS ANCHOR: The often contentious debate about national educational standards and testing kids has taken another twist in a state considered to be a leader in education reform.

Massachusetts last week decided to reject the tests based on federal Common Core standards, tests that are still used in many other states. Instead, the state of Massachusetts will develop its own exams to measure student progress.

New York Times reporter Kate Zernike is covering this story and joins me now. And Kate, what’s great about you is that you wrote for The Boston Globe for years. So, you have been covering this for a long time.

KATE ZERNIKE, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Right.

ALISON STEWART: What was the catalyst in Massachusetts that made the board say, hey, we want to create our own test, which is kind of a hybrid thing as opposed to sticking with the multi-state test?

KATE ZERNIKE: Well, I think it just came under a lot of political fire. And like other places in the country, the fire came not just from the left or the right, but from both sides.

And really from the middle from a lot of parents who didn’t feel they had a really good argument on why we would want a national test which might allow us to compare to other states.

So you had the right saying this is federal overreach, you had teachers unions saying this is – you’re trying to be punitive, you are trying to tie this to teachers’ evaluations.

Then a lot of parents who are saying what is the point of a national test anyway whether we have one to begin with?

ALISON STEWART: What’s interesting about this also is there’s a money component, as with most things, that the money that schools get is tied to test scores, correct?

KATE ZERNIKE: Right.

ALISON STEWART: How does this factor into this change?

KATE ZERNIKE: Well, I mean, I guess, you know, Massachusetts has always had some accountability since the 1993 Education Reform Act.

And that’s what’s interesting about this story is that there was, for a long time, consensus in Massachusetts around the idea of having common standards and common high-stakes tests that kids had to past for graduation.

What the federal government did – and the standards weren’t created by the federal government, they were created by the National Governor’s Association and other groups.

But what the federal government did was say we’re going to fund these tests. And we want as a requirement of your federal funding, you’re going to have to sign on to these standards and to these tests. And that’s where people began to feel like this was punitive, this was overreach by the federal government.

ALISON STEWART: People watching this might think, well, hasn’t Massachusetts always done incredibly well on the testing? What’s the need for a change?

KATE ZERNIKE: Well, I think Massachusetts did — you’re right. Under its previous system of standards and tests, it rose to the top of the national rankings.

But what they found was they were still having a lot of students who were showing up to college needing remedial education. And so they had periodically updated their standards.

And so they decided that they would join this National Governors Association effort to write national standards.

ALISON STEWART: All right. So let’s go dig down a little bit. This is actually going to be a hybrid test? Can you explain to our viewers what’s going on with this new Massachusetts test?

KATE ZERNIKE: So there was two tests that were created under the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program. They’re PARCC and the Smarter Balance test. Massachusetts was part of the PARCC consortium of testing.

Massachusetts will take some questions from the PARCC exam, but it will continue to call – but the test will be created for Massachusetts.

It will – excuse me — be tied more to Massachusetts’ standards and it will be called MCAS, which is the name of the test that Massachusetts – the state-specific test that Massachusetts has used for years.

ALISON STEWART: What is the difference between the two? Like, what are they cherry picking from one test and the other?

KATE ZERNIKE: Well, I think the argument for PARCC was it’s tied to the Common Core standards, which are these national standards that we’ve had.

The MCAS was tied to their old standards. I think a lot of people would say, well, we have these standards.

What’s wrong with them? The state felt that it was really upgrading the standards to tie them to the Common Core standards.

ALISON STEWART: Let’s pull back outside of Massachusetts. This influential state makes this big move. What does this mean in the bigger picture for Common Core?

KATE ZERNIKE: Well, I think, you know, the next step in Massachusetts is going to be – there’s a ballot initiative or a proposed ballot initiative that would repeal Common Core there, which would really be a statement.

But I think what this means for the test, which is tied to the Common Core, is a lot of other states are going to look and say, wow, if Massachusetts, which was kind of this gold, Good Housekeeping seal of approval, if they pull back, then what’s the point of us doing this? Maybe this test isn’t valid.

I think what we’re going to see is a lot of this accountability in testing devolve back to the states instead of at the national level, which is where it’s been for the last five years.

ALISON STEWART: Kate Zernike from The New York Times. Thanks so much.

KATE ZERNIKE: Thanks.

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