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Legislature Misses Opportunity to Improve Student Achievement

“An Act to Improve Student Achievement” was the title of the original bill that was amended beyond recognition and rejected by the Senate in a 25-14 vote today. That proposal would have built on the 2010 Achievement Gap Act by extending the management flexibilities that have been so critical to turning around underperforming (Level 4) schools and raising the charter school cap for specific categories of schools in the lowest performing districts.

As Tricia Lederer explained over a year ago, MBAE supported the goals of the legislation but testified that the bill did not go far enough.  We urged the Joint Committee on Legislation to extend the autonomy and management flexibility afforded Level 4 turnaround schools to all Level 3 schools in order to help them improve performance and avoid slipping in to a lower category.  We also advocated that in addition to raising the cap in the lowest performing districts, charter schools in the lowest 10% of those districts not count against the statewide cap.

So, we are greatly disappointed that the Legislature moved in the other direction.  Defying evidence that the management flexibilities are working, (an external analysis “found evidence that schools showing rapid gains in achievement were leveraging the increased flexibility granted by the 2010 Act Relative to the Achievement Gap to directly address many of the challenges that have stymied traditional school improvement efforts”) and consistent findings that charter schools are providing access to high quality education for students who have no other options, legislators protected the status quo for adults rather than meeting the needs of the 45,000 children on charter school waiting lists.

MBAE remains committed to an education system that provides all students the opportunities that prepare them for a successful future and will continue to work toward this goal.

MBAE commends Rep. Alice Peisch for her work crafting a compromise bill and the state representatives who passed it in the House.  We also thank the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association and the Race to the Top Coalition for their tireless efforts to pass a bill worthy of the children who so desperately need outstanding public schools. 

New Standards Require a New Assessment

Why Standards And Assessments Matter to BusinessThe early deadline for districts’ to choose giving the PARCC test or the now 17-year-old MCAS exam next school year has passed. As of June 30th, 297 districts have made a binding decision of which assessment to administer next spring with 176 districts choosing PARCC, and 121 choosing MCAS. In the last week, Wayland, Weston, and South Hadley school committees also voted to go with PARCC this coming school year.  It is now clear the state will have enough districts implementing PARCC to truly inform the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s decision in the fall of 2015 about whether to adopt it in place of MCAS.

This decision is of critical importance.  The standards alone will not be effective in raising student achievement if we don’t have an assessment that is aligned with the standards and measures whether students are learning to them.

Robert Rothman, senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education and author of Fewer, Clearer, Higher: How the Common Core State Standards Can Change Classroom Practice, recently stated in a blog post “If an assessment does not measure the full breadth of what the Standards expect, the information they provide to students, parents, and teachers about the extent to which students have learned what they were expected to learn will be misleading. In addition, research has shown clearly that when standards and tests diverge, teachers (quite understandably) focus on what is tested, rather than what the standards say.”

Many of the districts that chose to give PARCC next year did so because the test is more aligned with the standards and therefore better reflect what is being taught in the classroom.  This second year of the two-year PARCC pilot should provide us with more evidence of alignment with the standards and tell us whether the PARCC will be a better measure of the critical thinking and analytical skills the standards promote.

MBAE is engaging business organizations across the state in this important conversation and urging them to stay informed.  For more information about why standards and assessments matter to business, check out our fact sheet and contact us.

 

 

Spend Time on the Right Test

This spring, about 81,000 Massachusetts students took the PARCC (Partnership for Assessing College and Career Readiness) exam for a test-drive. Some schools only took PARCC, some the usual MCAS tests, some both. As districts consider whether to administer PARCC or MCAS for the next school year, two particular concerns being raised are just how much time teachers spend teaching to standardized tests and how much time students spend taking them.

Time spent away from classroom instruction in favor of standardized testing and test preparation are valid concerns for parents and educators. Business leaders are also concerned about the focus on tests, as a poll conducted by MassINC Polling Group for MBAE found. But businesses are also concerned by the lack of critical thinking skills they find in the job candidate pool, critical thinking skills that are also neither tested nor measured by MCAS.

These issues could be addressed by an exam that has the potential to take less time away from classroom learning, test and measure what students are actually learning in the classroom, and become an extension of the teaching and learning process, not just a stringent and stressful addition to that process.

PARCC has the potential to be that assessment system. USC education policy professor Morgan Polikoff says critics use “amount of testing time associated with the new CCSS [Common Core State Standards] assessments as evidence of a test-obsessed education policy system that undermines teaching and learning.” PARCC is expected to occupy 8 to 10 hours of students’ time, which seems daunting, but considering a Massachusetts public school student’s school year is a minimum of 990 hours…

…PARCC testing will take up approximately 1% of their year.

A timed exam can give schools the ability to get back to classroom instruction faster. As it stands with MCAS, schools practically shut down, and students can have as much time as they need to complete the test. All day, if they need it. With PARCC, there is an extra time allotment, should students need it, but Department of Elementary and Secondary Education survey data from the first round of the field test show that nearly all students participating in the PARCC field test finished the ELA section and 93% finished math in the total time allowed.

Massachusetts needs PARCC, not just because it’s aligned with Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks that include Common Core State  Standards implemented in schools today, but because it’s practical. It can give teachers and students more time in the classroom teaching and learning, and can provide an opportunity for students to show how they can apply their education to real-life problems. It’s time well spent, making PARCC a test worth teaching to, and a test that carries students beyond the classroom.

Using Assessments to Inform Instruction

Laura Slover, CEO of PARCC, Inc., the nonprofit managing the assessment project for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) states, began her career as a high school English teacher.  In a recent update, she wrote about how she used assessments to find her students’ strengths and weaknesses and reflect upon “where I needed to make adjustments to improve my instruction.”  She outlines how the PARCC states are developing tools and supports for educators that will help them do this work during the 2014-15 school year.  

Information about these formative, or diagnostic, assessments indicates that these are being designed to help educators:

  • more efficiently provide students with appropriate instructional support, and
  • better identify students who require intense interventions or enrichment activities in order to meet (or exceed) grade level performance targets.

Overview documents provide more details about the PARCC non-summative assessments being developed.

Diagnostic/K1 (PDF)

Speaking and Listening (PDF)

Mid-Year assessment (PDF)

We urge educators and concerned citizens to review these documents and websites to inform themselves about the facts and details related to new assessments.    This is a work in progress and there is a lot of room for input and suggestions, as has been the case throughout this voluntary, state-led effort.  

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NOTE:  Standards and assessments do not dictate curriculum – the materials and methods teachers use to help their students learn and be able to meet the standards.  However, many resources are being shared to provide educators options and reduce duplicate efforts.

Educators can access a new tool released last week, Achieve the Core. This website launched by Student Achievement Partners, shares free, open-source resources to support Common Core implementation at the classroom, district, and state level.  

Achieve the Core, houses materials such as lessons, writing samples and professional development tools by role, subject and grade level. Available resources also include the most recent edition of the K-2 and 3-12 standards in English language arts (ELA) and literacy for history/social studies, science, and technical subjects) as well as for K-8 mathematics.

Teacher Prep Review Charts Course to Improvement

 

For the second year, the National Council on Teacher Quality has reviewed 2400 teacher education programs across the country and found many lacking.  Findings released last week reveal mixed results for Massachusetts.  The good news is that the Commonwealth is making progress by instituting some of the policies shown to make a difference in teacher prep.  NCTQ provides a checklist, links to the rationale for each policy, and links to greater details about the policy in our state.   Although there is much room for improvement, Massachusetts “stands out for setting high expectations for what elementary teachers need to know across the board and uses top-notch tests for reading instruction and elementary mathematics.

Since we know that an effective teacher is the most critical in-school factor in student achievement, recruiting and training excellent teachers is perhaps the most important step the state can take to improve student learning and make the teaching profession one that attracts our most talented individuals.  We need only look at the recent action by the Boston Public Schools to transform their human capital practices for the evidence that proves why this is so important:

  • Having a top-quartile teacher rather than a bottom-quartile teacher four years in a row may be enough to close the black-white test score gap (Gordon, Kane and Staiger, 2006)
  • Students assigned to a good teacher over three years in a row will score 50 percentile points higher on tests than students assigned to weak teachers over the same period (Sanders, 1996)
  • Having a high-quality teacher throughout elementary school can substantially offset or even eliminate the disadvantage of low socio-economic background (Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain, 2002)

MBAE’s New Opportunity to Lead emphasizes the importance of “World Class Teachers and Leaders” and makes it clear “top-performing countries are very effective at recruiting teachers from among the top graduates and at preparing and developing them for ongoing success in the classroom.”   We think it is imperative that we review our teacher prep programs and complete the work that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has begun.  The business community knows that talent is the key  to competitiveness and success.  And, it is true for education as well.

Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education