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Supporting Great Teaching During Change

The adoption of college and career ready standards now invite the questions: How do teachers, students, and families know students are meeting these higher standards? What expectations have been communicated to teachers about what students should be able to do with what they have learned?
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By Darren Burris

I believe that without great teachers nothing else matters. This belief is at the core of why I find policymakers' discussion about moving to an "MCAS 2.0" rather than the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessment so unsettling.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) enables and supports teaching and learning in many ways, but two of particular importance are standards and assessment. Standards are an issue of equity, ensuring that all students are held to the same standards. They also ensure that teachers have a clear common language of what students should know and be able to do, and a coherent ladder of learning that builds from kindergarten through 12th grade. Since 2011, teachers have been working tirelessly to learn and engage with the new demands that these college and career standards pose for teaching and learning.

The adoption of college and career ready standards now invite the questions: How do teachers, students, and families know students are meeting these higher standards? What expectations have been communicated to teachers about what students should be able to do with what they have learned?

These questions around assessment now linger, precariously, with an approaching vote by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Under the thoughtful leadership of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, teachers and districts have undergone a deliberate and slow process of transitioning from one assessment system to another. They have attended professional development over the last three years on a next-generation assessment system and have started to wrestle with the new expectations that the PARCC assessment sets for themselves and for students. In the spring of 2014, districts all over the Commonwealth piloted early field tests of the exam, and in the spring of 2015, 54 percent of districts chose to give the PARCC assessment instead of the MCAS in grades 3 through 8. Teachers have been working hard to meet the demands of this more rigorous assessment.

At last month's Board meeting Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester floated the idea of a compromise between MCAS and PARCC -- an MCAS 2.0. This idea does not include any timeline on implementation, length of exam, retention of meaningful college and career ready scores, rigorous items, technology requirements, etc. fails to recognize the hard work teachers have been doing to prepare themselves and students for this new assessment. It places the teaching and learning that teachers are planning for each day in a context of uncertainty. As an educator, I wonder what exam we will have. What should I be preparing my students for this spring? Next spring? Will we actually get data back that will provide meaningful feedback on whether students are reaching college and career ready standards?

Massachusetts has administered the MCAS for the last 18 years and has, deliberately and carefully, undergone a multi-year evaluation, review, and field test of PARCC to replace our legacy assessment. This process of transitioning to PARCC communicates that this is not just another education initiative or knee jerk reaction. In contrast, MCAS 2.0 starts to sound like other education initiatives that come at ever increasing intervals without allowing the proper vetting and implementation before the next new initiative arrives.

This final-hour change may be necessary to keep all the great strides PARCC has made in improving assessment -- a larger, more diverse bank of test items, timely data, deeper problem-solving, writing from multiple resources, evidence-based reasoning, and a large set of teaching and learning resources for teachers to name only a few. These shifts are what make PARCC an assessment that rewards great teaching rather than test prep.

The Board must consider whether the increased cost incurred by an MCAS 2.0 and delay in implementation will be in the best interest of the Commonwealth. We hope the Board will consider educators and recognize the hard work already started by thousands of us across the Commonwealth. An uncertain path forward does not provide teachers the support, confidence, or clarity that allows them to do their best work.

I urge the Board to keep PARCC as our assessment, and let teachers teach.

Darren Burris is Director of Instruction for Science, Art, and Mathematics at Boston Collegiate Charter School. He is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum.

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