NYT’s Mass. Testing Story Contradicted By Other Outlets, Appears To Overstate Decision

Things have begun to look pretty bad for the multistate assessment known as PARCC in Massachusetts, according to a November 21 New York Times story:

State education chief Mitch Chester was “walking away” from the Common Core-aligned tests he helped create. The state would now “go it alone” rather than using one of the multistate consortia.

According to the Times story (penned by Kate Zernike and headlined “Massachusetts’s Rejection of Common Core Test Signals Shift in U.S.”), the state would “abandon the multistate test in favor of one to be developed for just this state.” A paragraph later, the move is described as an “about-face.”

Symbolically, no doubt the decision was a big one. The state once leading the way on high, uniform standards was modifying its approach in the face of opposition and concern – following a process that has unfolded in several other states that have renamed the standards and dropped or modified the assessments.

But the substance of the Massachusetts shift – the “about-face” described in the Times – might not have been as clear-cut or dramatic as the Times made it seem, and the story’s accuracy has been hotly debated in subsequent days — and contradicted by other news outlets closer to the story.

In the immediate aftermath of the Times coverage, pro-Common Core bloggers (including some who receive funding from the same sources as this one) reacted strongly:

Education Post blogger Erika Sanzi published a post (Get It Straight: Massachusetts Isn’t Scrapping PARCC) that described the new approach as a  “hybrid” exam. She said that the decision was designed to address political concerns without reversing course on rigorous standards.

At NJ Left Behind, blogger Laura Waters posted Call It What You Want, Common Core is Here to Stay, noting that several states have renamed the standards or reviewed the assessments but stuck with the approach.

But local outlets like the Boston Globe and WBUR also covered the decision quite differently than did the Times:

The Boston Globe story (Education board votes to adopt hybrid MCAS-PARCC test) by Jeremy Fox said the state would “develop a version of the MCAS test that will incorporate elements of a proposed replacement, known as PARCC” and noted that critics including state teachers association president Barbara Madeloni weren’t as pleased by the decision as you might imagine they would be if the state had really just voted to abandon PARCC:

“They’re just hiding PARCC inside MCAS,” Madeloni is quoted as saying in the Globe. “Let’s not be deceived.”

On WBUR, the story (Education Board Approves ‘MCAS 2.0’ For State Test) describes “a hybrid of the state’s current MCAS exam and the PARCC test” that the state had been piloting the past two years.  

“Despite the official move away from a PARCC test, Massachusetts will remain a member of the PARCC consortium. And the new test could still be heavily based on PARCC, the commissioner told reporters in a call last week.”

And at least one national outlet followed up on the story, and also provided a different account than the Times:

On Tuesday, Politico reported that the Massachusetts state education chief Mitchell Chester had issued a statement that the stated had “not abandoned” either the Common Core standards or the PARCC assessment, blaming national media for inaccurately describing the state’s decision.

According to Politico, the state board had decided to adopt a new assessment that would “include MCAS questions, questions developed for the new test and PARCC questions.”

There’s a fairly significant mismatch between the thrust of the Times piece and the accounts of other outlets. 

There’s also a mismatch between the top section of the Times piece and the clarifications and details that come further down: “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.”  

What’s going on here? Beyond an apparent over-reach on the part of the Times, it’s not entirely clear.

It’s no easy feat, being an education reporter these days. On any given story, the job includes covering and fact-checking the claims being made by advocates and also explaining the political context or underlying dynamics behind what’s being said – without resorting to best- or worst-case speculation. Plus, breaking news.

The Common Core and related assessments are notoriously difficult to cover well, given the myriad variations being made by the states, the various timelines, and the competing claims. A recent WSJ piece that attempted to categorize states that have abandoned or merely revised the Common Core standards generated as much confusion as it did clarity.

But it’d be great if the folks covering the education debate – especially those with the luxury of sharing the beat with others (as Zernike does at the Times) would be super careful not to fall into merely covering claims, without at the same time filling readers in on the background dynamics, context, and likelihood.  Most do — most of the time. 

In this case, I can imagine a fascinating political story about the swirling dynamics surrounding the Common Core and its related tests in Massachusetts, or a nuanced story about testing adaptations that Massachusetts and several other states have decided to implement.

But instead the obvious political significance of the decision seems to have gotten confused with the much more modest substantive impact of the move. And the attempt to cast Massachusetts as a leader on education issues, which it often has been in other areas, is undercut by the reality that the state has not been one of the first to act when it comes to revisiting Common Core standards and testing decisions. Here, Massachusetts is following rather than leading.

If the Times story was an isolated example, it would be merely objectionable, but of course other mainstream news outlets tend to follow the Times’ lead. In a followup segment, the PBS NewsHour said that Massachusetts had decided to “reject” PARCC:

Massachusetts last week decided to reject the tests based on federal Common Core standards, tests that are still used in many other states,” said Alison Stewart. “Instead, the state of Massachusetts will develop its own exams to measure student progress.”

Well, no. See above. 

Making matters somewhat worse, on that segment (Massachusetts drops Common Core, will develop own student evaluations), Zernike speculated without any apparent evidence that “a lot of other states are going to look and say, wow, if Massachusetts, which was kind of this gold, Good Housekeeping seal of approval, if they pull back, then what’s the point of us doing this? Maybe this test isn’t valid.”

Well, no. Many states have already acted, and the Massachusetts approach could just as well become a new model for states to adopt and retain rigorous assessments as drop them. 

Asked via email for her thoughts about contradictory coverage and related issues, Zernike declined to comment and referred me to corporate communications, whose representative said that the piece is accurate and the paper stands by it.

This is unfortunate, and unusual. Several other Times reporters (as well as reporters from many other outlets) have been willing to reflect on their work in the interests of getting the story right or improving future coverage.

Related posts: A “Punitive” Look At The NYT’s Latest Education CoverageNational Teacher Shortage?Are Classroom Teachers Better At Scoring Tests?NYT Includes Squishy Miami-Dade Layoff FiguresNYT’s Zernike Interviews The Prize’s Dale RussakoffNYT Joins Education Coverage Arms RaceBlizzard Of Testing Coverage Still Leaves Lots Of Gaps.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.