Is the Commissioner of Education Complying with the Law?

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Twenty years after the passage of the landmark Massachusetts education reform law, how did the Bay State get to a place where it is unclear whether the Commonwealth’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) is abiding by federal and state law on a key pillar of reform – testing for accountability?

Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester’s rush to pilot new national exams has caused consternation among superintendents, with 38 districts refusing to participate in the effort to pilot the new PARCC tests.

After repeated questions from district officials, Pioneer sent a January 27th letter to Commissioner Mitchell Chester questioning (1) whether the Commonwealth’s plan to pilot PARCC (while exempting certain students from MCAS) was aligned with the state’s landmark 1993 law and (2) whether the Department had received a waiver from the federal government authorizing the state and districts to forego the administration of the 2014 MCAS exam.

The Commissioner’s January 31st reply is troubling. In it, Chester indicates that the DESE had not received a waiver from the federal government. Nor is it clear when the Massachusetts Department’s request was submitted to the federal government.  (As the Commissioner has not made this waiver public, Pioneer has submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to allow that request to be seen by school officials and the general public.)

Today, Pioneer is issuing a follow-up Open Letter, in which Executive Director Jim Stergios notes:

[A]dministration of the MCAS is not optional. It is the law – both state and federal law. The goal of such testing is to provide information to both parents and the department you head. An engine of reform was always contemplated to inform the conversations over kitchen tables that decided school committee elections, chose schools, and made decisions about town meeting warrants. A commissioner of education doesn’t get to arbitrarily abrogate the testing responsibility – especially given the erosion of student achievement in elementary schools that has been documented in NAEP results. We remain, after all, a society under the rule of law.”

This is not the first time the Commissioner has had difficulty with the law.  A Superior Court judge, ruling on the controversy around the state’s approval of a Gloucester charter school in 2010,  found “a strong factual showing that the Commissioner, despite his affidavit to the contrary, did not perform his own evaluation of the GCA application but, to the contrary, ignored the state regulations.”

The Pioneer letter closes noting that the Commissioner’s “reckless view” of the rule of law “places [him], along with Massachusetts school committees, superintendents, principals and teachers, in a very difficult legal and ethical position.”  Each of these education officials understands that state and federal laws apply to them as well.

Letter to Commissioner of Education Re: “Double-Testing”

The letter above is in response to Commissioner Chester’s response, dated Jan. 31, 2014:

Letter from Commissioner Chester to Pioneer Institute Executive Director Jim Stergios

Here is the original letter that Pioneer sent to Commissioner Chester:

Open Letter to Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester by Pio Boston