"21st century skills" shenanigans in the Bay State

Charles Chieppo & Jamie Gass

Last spring, Paul Reville, who was then chair of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and is now the Commonwealth's Secretary of Education, created the 21st Century Skills Task Force. Its charge seemed reasonable at first glance--to review state curriculum frameworks and the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), the high-stakes tests students are required to pass to earn a high school diploma, and update them to include additional skills needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world. According to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, these futuristic skills include creativity, media savvy, cultural competence, problem solving, and improved teamwork.

But now that the task force has released its recommendations, it's clear that its real goal is to compromise the Bay State's nationally lauded standards and tests. That would be an enormous mistake.

Accolades for Massachusetts's current standards-and-testing program have come from all directions. Its curriculum frameworks have been praised by both the American Federation of Teachers and the Fordham Foundation; Fordham and the U.S. Department of Education have recognized its proficiency standards as being among the nation's most rigorous. Washington, D.C. recently adopted MCAS and the Commonwealth's curriculum frameworks as models.

Noted educator E.D. Hirsch lauded the Massachusetts model earlier this year in a Washington Post op-ed. "Consider the eighth grade NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] results from Massachusetts, which are a stunning exception to the nationwide pattern of stagnation and decline," he wrote. "That is because Massachusetts decided...students (and teachers) should learn explicit, substantive things about history, science and literature, and that students should be tested on such knowledge."

Unfortunately, the 21st Century Skills Task Force's recommendations would move Massachusetts away from the sensible reforms Hirsch touted. While Hirsch celebrates clearly articulated goals and objective assessments to promote excellence and accountability, the task force, for example, wants to use the U.S. History test to try out project-based assessments that require students to demonstrate skills like "global awareness." This would crowd out more central topics like the founding documents or causes of the Civil War.

The track record of these so-called complementary assessments is poor, because they are costly and cumbersome, and their grading is inherently subjective. Introducing such subjectivity would have a corrosive effect on the Commonwealth's efforts to ensure that all students, regardless of where they live, have access to academic content that is the foundation for economic success and exercising the rights of citizenship.

Subjectivity is also expensive. A 2003 General Accounting Office study found that it cost 60 cents per test to score North Carolina's multiple-choice assessment, while scoring multi-faceted college work and readiness assessments would run about $40 each.

Scoring MCAS cost $7 per test, suggesting that Massachusetts has achieved an appropriate balance that includes written answers that measure reading, writing, and problem solving. The correlation between MCAS scores and college performance is further proof of the assessments' quality.

But the task force report disagrees. It claims that, "Massachusetts can learn from the experience of West Virginia" when it comes to integrating 21st century skills into the curriculum. In 2005, Massachusetts became the only state to place first in every category on the NAEP test, known as the nation's report card. The next time the test was administered, the Commonwealth's students did it again. West Virginia's NAEP scores are all below the national average.

The report also calls on MassPartners--a group made up of the teachers unions, school committees, and superintendents that have fought education reform for 15 years--to define how to integrate 21st century skills in our schools. The task force report declares, "Doing this right will require a shift in our curricular priorities." They're right. It would require a shift--from raising student achievement to a focus on soft skills that are difficult to measure. 

We've been down this road before. Immediately following the 1993 enactment of the landmark state education reform bill that created MCAS, progress on implementation was slow. In 1995, initial drafts of the state's English language arts curriculum frameworks included Ebonics and derogatory language about "so-called standard English."

By 1996, such silliness led a Republican governor and Democratic legislature to clean house, removing state board of education members who valued unending process and political correctness over student achievement. It was only then that the Commonwealth started on its path to becoming a national model.

We are again at a crossroads in the Bay State. We can't ask students to exhibit hard-to-measure 21st century skills if they haven't mastered the English, math, science, and history upon which the skills are based. We hope policymakers will make the right choice and resist the temptation to substitute vague, short-term skills for enduring academic content. Choosing the other path would effectively close the book on education reform in Massachusetts.

Charles Chieppo is a senior fellow at, and Jamie Gass directs, the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Massachusetts public policy think tank.