Looking back on a busy 2018-19
by Gary Kaplan
The end of a school year is a traditional time for reflection. This year offers a wider than usual range of events to reflect on.
Education occupied an unusual amount of front page real estate. The quarter-century anniversary of Education Reform last year kicked off a long process of re-evaluation that continues to the present moment. The Legislature is still working on a new funding formula to correct the flaws in the old formula that widened the gaps in resources between wealthy towns and poor cities. These dollar gaps correlate with longstanding student performance gaps. There is a wide opinion gap on the degree to which correlation is causation, and on how to ensure that increased funding produces higher performance in the places where it is most needed. The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education are untangling the strands of three competing proposals and weaving them into a tapestry of consensus.
The new MCAS 2.0 arrived in high school this year. The old test was the product of the Education Reform Act of 1993, which struck a “Grand Bargain” of funding in return for accountability. The funding formula worked well for a while but was not sustained and is now supine on the legislative operating table (see above). The accountability side of the bargain produced statewide curriculum standards and the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). The curriculum standards were created by thousands of teachers working through the 1990s to compile detailed compendia of the specific skills to be acquired in every subject at every grade level. The high school math and English standards are each 200 pages thick and contain hundreds of specific competencies. These standards represent a broad-based societal consensus on the knowledge and skills required to function effectively as a student, a worker and a citizen. The MCAS tests at each grade level were derived directly from the standards, each MCAS question linked to a specific standard. For the first time, every teacher knew exactly what content was required and it was possible to assess students from Williamstown to Provincetown on the same template.
It was a different economy in 1993. Manufacturing still employed 14% of the workforce. Only 17% of the working-age population had a bachelor’s degree. But the handwriting was scrawled boldly on the wall. The GM plant had closed, Wang had folded, DEC, Apollo and Prime would not last the decade.
The shift in the composition of the economy meant that a new kind of workforce was required. The new rubric “College and Career Readiness” coined in 2009 by the US Department of Education implied that the skills required for full participation in the emerging knowledge-based economy are not lower than those required for higher education. Our public education system, where 90% of our young people are prepared for eventual careers, was going to have to raise its game.
But that system has struggled to meet the old standards. MCAS scores rose steadily for the first decade after the test became a graduation requirement in 2003. Then they plateaued. There has been no progress since 2013, nor have the “achievement gaps” between demographic groups narrowed. The new MCAS 2.0 contains more difficult questions and requires more critical thinking and writing. It will pose a stiffer challenge to students and to schools.
The advent of MCAS 2.0 combined with the protracted funding debate stirred the embers of discord regarding standardized testing. Standardized tests have many critics and few defenders, but legions of users. All advanced countries have had national testing systems for many decades, some for centuries. Napoleon instituted the baccalauréat in 1808. The US inaugurated the College Board exams in 1901, the SAT in 1926 and the PSAT in 1955. China introduced the Gaokao, taken by 10 million students annually, in 1952. Massachusetts was a latecomer in 1998, but the MCAS was given to 497,000 students last year.
Standardized testing is a mechanism for gathering data on defined variables in large populations. It does not render a value judgement on the worth of a human being. In education, it tells us where we are meeting our skill-development goals and where we are not. It provides the detailed information we need to direct our efforts efficiently. There is no other practicable method for gathering performance data from large groups; and there is no way to manage any system, large or small, without data.
The formula “College and Career Ready” has turned out to be a slippery rubric. It might have been assumed even in 2009 that college requires a higher level of skill than career. But the rapid transformation of job content wrought by technology, from computers to robots to artificial intelligence, has made many occupations as cognitively challenging as any freshman college course. And the seismic shift from production to services has introduced a whole new realm of interpersonal and communication skills to the standard employee profile.
Degrees have long been a proxy for skills. But even though 99% of the new jobs since the Great Recession have gone to college graduates, employers are realizing that degrees don’t necessarily guarantee the specific skills they need. Those skills are both specialized and widely varied, and they change constantly.
After the last decade or two of focus on technical and quantitative skills, even the tech sector is now realizing that it also needs “soft” skills like oral and written communication, human relations, cross-cultural competency, critical thinking, creative problem-solving, teamwork and other staples of the long-disparaged liberal arts. There’s even a new coinage for this re-emerging domain: the “rapport sector.”
Not only does the content of current jobs demand higher cognitive, communicative and interpersonal skills; the content of every job will change constantly as technology advances. American workers will have to learn new skills throughout their careers. This re-skilling imperative makes the literacy and numeracy foundation monitored by MCAS and other standardized tests even more important.
Not to be outdone, the Department of Higher Education adopted a new course placement policy including a new placement test, NextGen Accuplacer. The old Accuplacer was adopted in 1998, the same year as MCAS. Coincidentally, the updated and more demanding NextGen Accuplacer has arrived the same year as the high school MCAS 2.0, amplifying the message: up your game.
Higher Education and K-12 have continued to develop the Early College program that was initiated in 2017. Its ambitious goal of enrolling 16,000 high school students in college courses, up from the current 3000, will keep both sides busy.
And finally, Boston has a new Superintendent. The barrage of recent reports and studies critical of the District will give her plenty of data to incubate a new strategic plan.
At JFY, we are keeping up with these changes by renewing our content and creating new instructional strategies to meet emerging needs. We developed new curricula for MCAS 2.0 and NextGen Accuplacer. We devised new instructional strategies for English Learners using the bilingual capabilities of our software. We have been collaborating with higher education partners to bring college courses into high schools for the past three years. This year, in addition to our traditional academic support, we designed a year-long Early College Orientation program to help high school students raise their behavioral game to college level. We continued to help students eliminate remedial college courses and save tuition money. And we helped our schools improve their MCAS performance while the state and Boston were flat.
Our content and methods evolve with the mandates of government and the demands of the market. Our mission remains the same: economic opportunity and social mobility. New methods, same mission. Old bottle, new wine.
Gary Kaplan is the executive director of JFYNetWorks