For the first time in our country’s history, a majority of American public school children are living at or near the poverty line. Given that incredible statistic, the situation in our district of Lawrence, Mass., with its winding journey to common-core implementation, seemed somewhat mundane by comparison. Until I thought about it. And the more I thought about it, the clearer it became: The debate over the Common Core State Standards reflects the larger question of how we improve public education for all our nation’s children, particularly as a path out of poverty and toward the American Dream.
Here in Massachusetts in 2010, we began integrating the common core into our state standards and the system by which we test those standards, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS. Five years later, K-12 district leaders throughout the state, like me, are asking if it is time for a wholesale replacement of the MCAS with the common-core assessment PARCC—an option we have. My answer for Lawrence? Not yet.
I’ve spent nearly 20 years in urban education. I’ve seen battles over whole language vs. phonics, split elementary/middle school models vs. combined K-8 schools, conceptual vs. algorithm-based math, and, more recently, charter vs. traditional public schools. To quote James Joyce, “I shall try to fly by those nets.” Indeed, it is both difficult and boring to be a moderate in these charged educational times, when zealots garner the money and attention for whichever cause they tub-thump. So to spice it up, we’ve taken to characterizing our approach in Lawrence—among the poorest cities in America—as “the radical center.”
I was given the responsibility of turning around the Lawrence public schools just over three years ago by our state’s education commissioner, Mitchell Chester. The district was among the commonwealth’s lowest-performing, as judged by the MCAS. Just before my arrival in the spring of 2012, Boston magazine dubbed our community the “city of the damned.”
My district is made up of immigrant children, mostly from the Dominican Republic, and for many of them English is their second language. They deserved a better education than they were getting. Working with our community stakeholders, my team and I put a plan in place to change the trajectory of the school system, which included a focus on the successful implementation of the state standards.
Based on early results, Lawrence is arguably the state’s most improved district in the past two years: Student-growth levels on the MCAS are at an all-time high; the district’s graduation rate has increased nearly 15 percentage points; and student-proficiency rates are also up, most notably in math, which has jumped 13 percentage points. But these early gains are not cause to declare victory. The reality is that we are still nowhere near where we need to be—and the state’s rigorous standards as tested by the MCAS reinforce this.
Before Massachusetts instituted state standards, our urban school teachers were sometimes judged merely by classroom-management skills. It didn’t matter whether the kids filled out word-search worksheets or spent six weeks constructing sugar-cube pyramids, so long as the classroom was orderly. The passage of the state’s 1993 Education Reform Act altered that dynamic. In exchange for additional state funding—particularly for low-income cities like Lawrence—all students would learn the same standards and take the MCAS. The new statewide system gave educators a measuring stick and held them accountable for results.
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The introduction of the common core to that equation was successfully embraced by Massachusetts schools beginning in 2010. That means the common core itself is nothing new to our state’s educators, while a full replacement of the MCAS with the new PARCC assessment would represent a dramatic shift. That is why Massachusetts has adopted a thoughtful approach to PARCC implementation. This school year, districts have the choice of continuing with the state assessment or trying out the PARCC exam. Based on the results of PARCC’s early implementation in pilot districts and other factors, the state will determine if PARCC will become the statewide assessment system, or if Massachusetts will instead beef up the MCAS.
In Lawrence, we will continue with the MCAS this year. The reason is simple: For a district under receivership—one in which I, as the receiver/superintendent, have expedited decisionmaking authority—it is more helpful to have an additional year of data from the same assessment system. This continuity allows us to better analyze our progress.
All students should be challenged to reach high standards.”
Do I also have some general concerns, beyond those for our district, about PARCC? Sure.
PARCC tests a more focused set of standards than the MCAS, and it goes deeper into those standards. Will the rigor of the new assessment create a floor effect whereby it becomes difficult to differentiate student-performance levels? How will parents, legislators, and other stakeholders react to the lower scores likely produced in the early years? Finally, while PARCC currently offers a pencil- and-paper option, future versions will be solely computer-based. Do districts have the hardware and bandwidth to handle this?
On the plus side, critical thinking will play a larger role in PARCC than on the MCAS. Students will be asked to make more inferences and use multiple sources to compare and contrast, synthesize, and create an argument.
I am agnostic on the state’s assessment shift. I don’t care if we change the goal posts. What I do care about is having a way to compare my district’s students with the average suburban kid in our state. In Lawrence, our goal is to mirror the suburban experience so that our kids have access to the same opportunities as students in the suburbs. If we can provide this comparable experience, we believe our children will succeed at similar levels.
That means more than test scores, by the way. Students from urban schools with top test scores do not graduate from college within four years at the same rate that students from suburban schools do. In Lawrence, we believe that standards matter—but not to the exclusion of other opportunities like high-quality arts, athletics, and enrichment. We also believe in teaching kids to be advocates for their own learning so that they will adapt and thrive in college.
All students should be challenged to reach high standards. Whether these are set locally, at the state level, or nationally, I will leave it to the politicians to decide. The real question—given that over half our nation’s public school children now live at or near the poverty line—is whether we can ensure that all children receive a great education and a chance at the American Dream.
A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 2015 edition of Education Week as What Will Be the Impact of the Assessments?