Sanzi: Rhode Island Gets Serious About School Standards, Adopts Massachusetts’s Tests
Many states strive to follow Massachusetts’ lead in providing quality education for their students. Rhode Island is now taking significant steps towards turning this aspiration into a reality. The state has decided to discontinue the use of national Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) student assessments and instead adopt the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) for grades three through eight.
Rhode Island will call the MCAS exam RICAS (Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System), but it will be identical to the one used in Massachusetts. In addition, Rhode Island high schoolers will now be required to take the PSAT and SAT.
If there is any state to form a partnership with in order to improve student achievement, it is Massachusetts. The state has consistently and thoughtfully worked towards enhancing its standards and testing practices for almost twenty years, without wavering.
In contrast, Rhode Island has changed its standards and assessments multiple times as education commissioners have come and gone. Attempts to hold teachers and the education system accountable have been met with strong opposition from unions, teachers, and parents. Plans have been modified, weakened, and even abandoned. Massachusetts introduced a high school exit exam in 1997, while Rhode Island still does not have one.
Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner said, "Massachusetts stayed the course for 20 years. This positions us for that kind of stability." Unfortunately, we see other states also wavering in their commitment to education reforms. Elected officials are succumbing to the political pressure surrounding Common Core, teacher evaluations, annual testing, and even school choice. In some cases, hard-won reforms are being dismantled, undoing years of progress and denying parents valuable information about their children’s education. The appointment of a new mayor, governor, or education commissioner can end years of dedicated work overnight.
Robert Pondiscio, from the Fordham Institute, wrote about the failed reform efforts in New York, stating, "When Betty Rosa was appointed as the new chancellor of the Board of Regents last year, she took a completely different approach than her predecessor. She called for the board to ‘move away from so-called reform.’ She even said that if she were a parent and not the head of the Board of Regents, she would opt out of state tests."
Political disputes have also hindered reforms in Tennessee, a state that has seen significant educational innovation in recent years. The inconsistency in evaluating programs and changing standards before their effectiveness can be determined has left many questioning the impact of these reforms. Rhode Island is taking a different approach this time, focusing on building consensus among stakeholders and aiming for lasting and stable change. Partnering with Massachusetts, with its proven track record of implementing successful changes that raise student expectations and improve achievement, is a logical choice. Over time, Rhode Island could become a national leader in creating interstate partnerships that benefit both students and teachers, who now have access to the expertise of thousands of teachers just across the state line.
Early signs indicate support from stakeholders. Despite conflicting priorities, union leaders, parent group leaders, the president of the Board of Education, and even students have expressed optimism about the switch. PARCC has become increasingly unpopular, especially in Rhode Island, where neither Massachusetts nor Connecticut utilize it. Therefore, it has lost value as a measure for comparing performance.
Commissioner Wagner emphasized, "The MCAS isn’t a better test; it’s about the partnership with Massachusetts. We have always compared ourselves to Massachusetts, and now we can actually do it."
Governor Gina Raimondo and Commissioner Wagner deserve credit for taking a significant step towards aligning Rhode Island’s public education system with that of Massachusetts. With more teachers to collaborate with, the ability to make fair comparisons, and a sense of long-term stability, Rhode Island is on the right path. However, achieving the same level of educational success as Massachusetts requires more than just changing a testing system. Nonetheless, Rhode Island has made a promising start and could serve as a model for other states by replicating the successful strategies of high-achieving states rather than reinventing the wheel.
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