At a dinner with colleagues in 2009, Mitchell Chester, Massachusetts’s commissioner of education, hatched what seemed like an obvious answer — a national test based on the Common Core standards that almost every state had recently adopted.
Now Dr. Chester finds himself in the awkward position of walking away from the very test he helped create.
On his recommendation, the State Board of Education decided last week that Massachusetts would go it alone and abandon the multistate test in favor of one to be developed for just this state. The move will cost an extra year and unknown millions of dollars.
But no about-face has resonated more than the one in Massachusetts, for years a leader in education reform. This state embraced uniform standards and tests with consequences more than two decades before the Common Core, and by 2005, its children led all states in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the nation’s report card, and rose above all other countries, save Singapore, in science.
The state’s participation was seen as validation of the Common Core and the multistate test; Dr. Chester became the chairman of the board that oversees the test Massachusetts joined. The state’s rejection of that test sounded the bell on common assessments, signaling that the future will now look much like the past — with more tests, but almost no ability to compare the difference between one state and another.
“It’s hugely symbolic because Massachusetts is widely seen as kind of the gold standard in successful education reform,” said Morgan Polikoff, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California, who is leading an evaluation of the national tests. “It opens the door for a lot of other states that are under a lot of pressure to repeal Common Core. Getting rid of these tests is a nice bone to throw.”
The fight in Massachusetts has been dizzying, with a strange alliance between the teachers’ union and a conservative think tank that years before had been a chief proponent of the state’s earlier drive for standards and high-stakes tests. As in other states, conservatives complained of federal overreach into local schooling, while the union objected to tying the tests to teacher evaluations. The debate drew money from national political players like the billionaire David Koch and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Amid the noise, many parents had trouble understanding what the Common Core was, or argued that the nation’s public schoolchildren took too many tests. So while parents and students here did not opt out of testing in the waves they did in places like New York and New Jersey, they also did not express much support.
“It’s much more about politics than it is about education,” said Tom Scott, the executive director of the state superintendents’ association, which had encouraged the state to keep the multistate test.
People on either side of the debate here still celebrate the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 as “the grand bargain.” Democratic legislators and the Republican governor at the time, William F. Weld, agreed to give schools more money in exchange for ambitious standards defining what students were expected to learn and new tests tied to those standards, including one that, by 2003, students had to pass to graduate from high school.
But while state scores rose, there were still hints that the new standards were not teaching the skills students needed. The number requiring remedial education in college remained high. So the state joined in when the National Governors Association began drafting what became the Common Core, a description of the skills students should learn by the time they graduated from high school. Because of the state’s expertise, large numbers of its teachers joined in writing the standards. The state adopted them in 2010.
Dr. Chester and his counterparts in Louisiana and Florida proposed that states also combine resources on a test, not only to compare results but to afford a better test design.
As states rolled out the new tests over the last two years, parents and teachers pushed back in states from Oregon to Florida. There were technical glitches, as well as complaints that the exams were too hard and too long. When states began reporting poor results, parents and policy makers did not necessarily see the benefit of comparing their schools with others.
But at hearings here this fall, many superintendents and teachers testified that the new test, known as Parcc, for the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, had improved what was happening in classrooms. Given the choice between the state’s old test and the multistate test this spring, more than half the state’s school districts chose Parcc.
“If we revert back to the old standards, all this work will have been for naught,” said Dianne Kelly, the superintendent in Revere, who credits the standards for tripling the number of students taking algebra in eighth grade and doubling the number taking Advanced Placement courses.
The opposition came from what might have once seemed an unlikely place, the Pioneer Institute, a conservative think tank that had been a driver behind the higher standards in the 1993 legislation. It had hired Tom Birmingham, who as a Democratic state senator had been a co-author of that legislation. He warned that the state would be pressured to lower standards as other states hid failure by lowering the bar for passing.
“It becomes not a race to the top but a race to the middle,” Mr. Birmingham said in an interview.
The federal government was not involved in writing the Common Core. But Pioneer, like other conservative groups, argued that the Obama administration had forced it on states by granting money to the national tests. As part of its Race to the Top program, the administration in 2010 awarded about $350 million to design the Parcc and the other national test, known as Smarter Balanced.
That argument persuaded even educators who believed the Common Core was improving what happened in the classroom.
“It was almost like extortion — if you want this money, you have to do things the way we want,” said Todd Gazda, the superintendent in Ludlow, near the western Massachusetts city of Springfield.
The president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Paul Toner, had supported the Parcc test. But in 2014, the membership elected a new president, Barbara Madeloni, who had campaigned against high-stakes tests, period.
“It is destructive to our students and our teachers and the very possibility of joyful and meaningful public education,” Dr. Madeloni said in an interview.
“We’ve really flipped the narrative in a year,” she said.
Supporters of the standards countered that Pioneer’s biggest donors include Mr. Koch and the Walton Family Foundation, funders of other conservative causes. Jim Stergios, Pioneer’s executive director, said, “David Koch never talked to me about Common Core.”
Supporters of Parcc also accused its opponents of distorting facts. The opponents argued, for instance, that the new standards squeezed out literature and poetry. In fact, Common Core requires students to read more nonfiction, but only because it requires them to do expository reading in all subjects, including science and math.
“The opposition was making some wild claims that the proponents answered with factual information, assuming that everyone would take a very rational approach to the facts and reach a valid conclusion,” said Linda M. Noonan, the executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, a proponent of higher standards. “But that isn’t how the public process works.”
The multistate exam was not the only one in the glut of testing, but it became the most toxic.
“We blew it,” said Mr. Scott, at the state superintendents’ association. “That’s too bad, because there’s a lot of good that’s going out with it.”
Making his recommendation for a new test to the state board of education, Dr. Chester described it as the best of both worlds. The new test will use Parcc content, which better reflects the Common Core, but the state will maintain the flexibility to change or add material without having to go through a committee of multiple states.
Dr. Chester said Massachusetts would remain in the Parcc consortium so it could compare results with other states.
“We’re increasingly a global world,” he said. “And the idea that 50 different states in the United States had 50 different definitions of what it means to be literate and what it means to know math — and on top of that those 50 states had 50 different assessments to determine whether you’re literate or whether you know math — makes little sense.”
But with states dropping out of the tests, comparisons remain elusive. Parcc began as a cooperation between 26 states, but now only five and the District of Columbia will use the test. Smarter Balanced began with 31 states — some states joined both groups — and now counts 15. Three states have repealed the Common Core altogether, and here a proposed ballot initiative would do the same.
Concerns about the tests have become self-fulfilling. Officials in Massachusetts said that the multistate test had become less appealing now that there were fewer states to compare and that they feared that Parcc would fail, leaving them without a test. Lawmakers in states still using the test point to the states’ withdrawing as evidence that it is not valid.
Still, Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a nonprofit founded by business groups and governors that helped states draft the Common Core, noted that even in states that are re-examining it and the Common Core, most are sticking with the higher standards.
“The notion that the Parcc brand is somehow toxic, that has happened and will continue to happen,” he said. “But at the end of the day, there will be, in the overwhelming majority of states, standards that are still highly common.”