A front page article by Jamie Vaznis in the Boston Globe today carries the news that all lower-grade Boston district schools will drop the MCAS and adopt the new Common Core-aligned PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career) test.
Most Boston public schools would drop the MCAS next spring in favor of a new online testing system the state is trying out…
The recommendation, being presented to the School Committee Wednesday night, would affect more than 22,000 Boston students in grades 3-8 who must take state standardized tests every spring. Tenth-graders would continue to take the MCAS, which remains a state graduation requirement.
The most important consideration here should be the impact on learning and the pace of reform in Boston’s district schools. With so many of its schools falling in the Level 3 and 4 categories, BPS has no good justification for adopting PARCC across the board in grades 3 to 8. As I noted in Vaznis’ piece,
There is rightfully a lot of pressure from parents to keep accountability pressure on the schools, and implementing PARCC without any accountability function would in essence lessen if not remove the pressure to improve. That’s like giving troubled schools a pass for a year.
But it is worse than that. The adoption of PARCC across the board for K-8 schools resets all accountability and removes the ability to make comparisons of performance. It, in effect, sets back accountability for several years, until we have sufficient spans of data to understand how schools are performing. And for parents what this does is take away a critical tool — a tool that allows them to exert pressure on schools to improve core academic programs (math, science, and English Language Arts). Again, given the number of Level 3 and 4 schools in Boston, parents need those tools to advocate for their kids.
A second consideration is that Interim Superintendent John McDonough’s all-in adoption of PARCC for grades 3 to 8 is an dicey move. It’s not been at all clear how many districts around the state were sticking with the MCAS and how many were going with PARCC. The department suggests in the Globe piece that districts are running 60-40 in favor of PARCC, but outside observers suggest the department is overstating the adoption rate. The Globe piece reports the department’s numbers without question:
So far, 180 Massachusetts districts — including Andover, Milton, and Sudbury — plan to try out the new exams next spring, while 123 others, such as Peabody, Quincy, and Waltham, will stick with MCAS.
The problem here is that many of the districts that are counted in the list of adopters have only partially adopted or chosen to pass the decision off to school leaders. Case in point are Worcester and Springfield, both considered adopters by the department. But the former is piloting PARCC in half its schools and Worcester is leaving the decision to its principals. A fair assessment of the assessment adoption process would call it a draw — and that is remarkable given that the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester is the head of the PARCC assessment consortium and is putting all manner of pressure on districts to adopt the new test. (He went so far as to urge a Board vote, adopted in June, to place a de facto moratorium on charter school expansions in Brockton, Haverhill, Lowell, Somerville and Worcester as an inducement for those urban districts to adopt PARCC. This is what passes for leadership in Massachusetts education circles circa 2014.)
The fact is that many districts are not even close to having the level of technology needed to equitably and efficiently administer the new online tests. Many districts face overrides and long debates as to whether millions of dollars should be spent on technology or teachers.
These are the sorts of questions that have led to a collapse in the number of states participating in PARCC: Membership of the PARCC grouping has dropped from 25 to nominally 13. Included in the remaining 13 “nominal” states are places like Louisiana, which are actively seeking to drop Common Core and PARCC. That does not sound like a test that is gaining adherents or traction. Even architects of Common Core recognize that the test may not survive into the future.
Then there are legal questions. In New Mexico and Louisiana, there are open legal questions — well, actually lawsuits — about the implementation of PARCC and whether state procurement practices were being violated and in particular no-bid contracting was occurring. On this front, an enterprising reporter would delve into Massachusetts’ own procurement of PARCC testing support.
Most importantly for Massachusetts, with its landmark 1993 Education Reform Act, it’s not legal by state statute. The state department of education has chalked up many examples recently of ignoring the law. Earlier this year, my organization wrote to the Commissioner, noting that his attempts to pressure districts to adopt PARCC were in violation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. NCLB requires tests for students between grades 3 and 10. At that point the Commissioner sought and received a letter from the US Secretary of Education granting a waiver from that provision of the law.
The federal waiver received after the fact by Chester (see our exchange of letters here) still does not absolve him and the department from the need to follow Massachusetts’ landmark 1993 Education Reform Act, which has driven huge gains in student achievement in the Commonwealth for all student subgroups. MERA requires at a minimum testing in grades 4, 8 and 10; see Section II of Chapter 71:
Section II. The board shall adopt a system for evaluating on an annual basis the performance of both public school districts and individual public schools. With respect to individual schools, the system shall include instruments designed to assess the extent to which schools and districts succeed in improving or fail to improve student performance, as defined by student acquisition of the skills, competencies and knowledge called for by the academic standards and embodied in the curriculum frameworks established by the board pursuant to sections one D and one E in the areas of mathematics, science and technology, history and social science, English, foreign languages and the arts…
In addition, comprehensive diagnostic assessment of individual students shall be conducted at least in the fourth, eighth and tenth grades. Said diagnostic assessments shall identify academic achievement levels of all students in order to inform teachers, parents, administrators and the students themselves, as to individual academic performance…
The Commissioner, the Boston School Committee and the interim Superintendent will be in violation of the 1993 Act if BPS adopts PARCC for ELA and math in all lower grade schools, as the grade 4 and 8 requirements of the Reform Act require testing for accountability purposes in those grades.
So, from an educational perspective, the adoption of PARCC for all students in grades 3 to 8 is tantamount to abandoning accountability for the BPS performance. That’s bad. But violating provisions of Massachusetts’ Landmark 1993 Education Reform Act, that’s illegal.
A good test question for the Attorney General and the Inspector General: Are you paying attention to minor details like the rule of law?
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