Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester Should Recuse Himself from Upcoming Decision on PARCC & MCAS

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on

BOSTON – Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester, who later this year will make a recommendation to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (the board) about whether to replace MCAS tests with those developed by the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), chairs PARCC’s governing board.

Pioneer Institute calls on Chester to recuse himself from the MCAS/PARCC decision process for the following reasons:

1. As commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (the department), Chester serves as secretary to the board of education and oversees the state agency and hearing process for choosing between MCAS and PARCC. The agency he heads gathers the information on which the policy decision will be made and conducts the internal evaluation.  Commissioner Chester ultimately makes a recommendation to the board about which test to choose.

This is clearly a conflict of interest.  Taking this matter out of the context of education makes the point perhaps more evident.  Imagine that the general manager of the MBTA also chaired the board of Keolis or Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad when the two companies were competing for the $2.6 billion contract to operate the T’s commuter rail system.  Such a conflict of interest would never have been tolerated, yet this is precisely the situation given the commissioner’s leadership role at the PARCC.

2. In its role managing a series of five statewide public hearings that are currently underway on whether the board should officially adopt PARCC and abandon MCAS, the department chooses who to invite to deliver expert testimony.  The invited experts speak first and are allowed more time than members of the general public. Thus far, in the first four hearings, a strong majority of the invited experts have been supporters of PARCC.

3. Commissioner Chester has also formed a team of Massachusetts/PARCC Educator Leader Fellows within the department. According to a memo Chester sent to district and charter school leaders, the PARCC fellows, who receive a stipend, should be “excited about the content of the Common Core State Standards” and “already engaged in leadership work around them.” The department has no MCAS fellows.

4. The commissioner’s interactions with local education leaders have led many to believe that the decision to abandon MCAS has already been made.  Brookline Superintendent and Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents President William Lupini, in a 2014 letter to the town’s school committee, flatly stated that “MCAS will be phased out in favor of either PARCC or another new ‘next generation’ assessment after the 2015 test administration.”  (No other “next generation” test or MCAS 2.0 is under development or consideration.)

5. Given that the PARCC consortium originally included 26 participating states and Washington, DC, but now includes only seven and DC, there is enormous pressure on the commissioner, as the chairman of PARCC, to ensure that the testing consortium does not lose any more states.  This is especially so after a spring during which numerous states declined further participation in PARCC; just last week one of the few large states remaining in the consortium (Ohio) left the consortium.

The financial viability of PARCC is in great part a function of the number of students it services.  When PARCC included 26 states and DC, it could plan its pricing strategy on the basis of serving over 25 million (of the over 31 million) public school students enrolled in those jurisdictions.  With the loss of Ohio, PARCC has been reduced to serving just over 5 million.  Additional consortium states, most immediately Arkansas, are actively working toward similar departures.  Massachusetts’ almost one million public school students are of considerable concern to the consortium’s financial viability, therefore creating an untenable ethical position for the Commissioner.

Sadly, the larger process of choosing between Massachusetts’ previous academic standards and Common Core, which led to the current MCAS/PARCC issue, is already one that has been rife with at least the appearance of conflict of interest.  The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to develop and then to market Common Core.  Oddly, Commissioner Chester relied on three studies conducted by Gates-funded entities, directly or indirectly, to inform his 2010 recommendation that the board of education adopt Common Core.  A 2010 WCVB-TV 5 investigation found that Chester and other department personnel accepted $15,000 in luxury travel and accommodations from Common Core supporters prior to the board’s adoption of the Common Core.

As a gubernatorial candidate in 2010, Governor Baker opposed Common Core and PARCC.  In March of this year, he criticized the MCAS/PARCC process and earlier procedures that resulted in the adoption of Common Core, telling the State House News Service, “I think it’s an embarrassment that a state that spent two years giving educators, families, parents, administrators and others an opportunity to comment and engage around the assessment system that eventually became MCAS basically gave nobody a voice or an opportunity to engage in a discussion at all before we went ahead and executed on Common Core and PARCC.”

Such practices need to end, and the public’s trust in the department’s ability to manage a publicly impartial, transparent and accountable process needs to be restored. The first step is for Commissioner Chester, who chairs PARCC’s governing board, to recuse himself from the upcoming policy decision about whether to replace MCAS with the PARCC test.

In cases where there are several apparent conflicts of interest, recusals are an appropriate administrative response meant to uphold the public trust.

Pioneer Institute is an independent, non-partisan, privately funded research organization that seeks to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts through civic discourse and intellectually rigorous, data-driven public policy solutions based on free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government.