BESE approves PARCC-infused MCAS

Despite opposition from many educators, parents and school committee members, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted 8 to 3 on Nov. 17,  2015, to adopt a new PARCC-infused MCAS test starting in 2017.

An amendment was adopted to hold schools and districts harmless based on the results of the 2017 test.

Jessica Haralson Malden High School teacher Jessica Haralson was one of the many MTA member-educators holding signs outside before the BESE hearing began.

“Educator and parent advocacy led the commissioner to back off from his long-term explicit support for PARCC,” MTA President Barbara Madeloni said after the BESE meeting. “But no one is fooled by the shell game of hiding PARCC inside the so-called MCAS 2.0. This decision continues the destructive practice of distorting the purpose of teaching and learning through an obsessive focus on standardized test results.”

Thousands of member e-mails were sent to BESE members expressing the MTA’s support for a three-year moratorium on all high-stakes use of tests and opposition to the adoption of PARCC. In addition, educator advocacy caused school committees in more than a dozen communities and the Boston City Council to approve MTA-backed resolutions in favor of a moratorium.

Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester had proposed the hold-harmless provision just for districts that administer PARCC in the spring of 2016. The BESE voted 7 to 4 to also hold schools and districts harmless based on results from the new test.

The three members voting against the overall plan were, notably, the members representing teachers, students and parents: labor representative Ed Doherty of AFT Massachusetts; student member Donald Willyard, chair of the State Student Advisory Council; and parent representative Mary Ann Stewart, who is on the board of the Massachusetts Parent Teacher Association. Representatives of business and other interests voted in favor of the plan.

"I learned that we go to school to learn; unfortunately, that isn't the case anymore. I'm going to school to pass, and that's unacceptable to me.”

— BESE student representative Donald Willyard

Willyard, the only BESE member young enough to have experienced test-driven education firsthand, said, “I can and should be impeached if I go against how the students feel about this particular issue. I learned that we go to school to learn; unfortunately, that isn't the case anymore. I'm going to school to pass, and that's unacceptable to me.”

Board Chairman Paul Sagan, former president and CEO of Akamai Technologies, opposed the hold-harmless extension, contending that it would mean backing away from “our obligation” to hold adults in the system accountable.

Secretary of Education James Peyser, Governor Charlie Baker’s representative on the board, was also strongly against extending the hold-harmless provision for another year.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education must now contract with a testing firm to develop the so-called “next generation” MCAS tests. Most of the test items will be taken from the bank of items created for the PARCC Consortium by the giant testing company Pearson.

Districts that administered PARCC in 2015 will have to administer it again in 2016, while the rest will have the option of administering MCAS or PARCC. The 2016 MCAS test will contain some PARCC items.

A paper version of both tests will be available for the next three years, but the commissioner said he expects all districts to be administering the tests online as of 2019.

Through the class of 2019, students will continue to be required to pass the grade 10 MCAS English language arts, mathematics and science tests.

Kalpana GuttmanNewton teacher Kalpana Guttman told BESE members: "PARCC is a terrible failure."

The DESE is also planning to develop a new standardized history and social studies test, adding a fourth subject to the increasingly unpopular mandated testing load.

At a public hearing on the commissioner’s plan held in Malden on Nov. 16, even supporters expressed concern about how soon districts will be expected to have the technological capacity to administer the tests online. The needed technology and staff will cost districts millions of dollars.

Opponents expressed that concern and many others.

“PARCC is a terrible failure,” said Newton teacher Kalpana Guttman.

Guttman noted that many test items were badly written or not developmentally appropriate, that it took “armies of IT staff” to get Newton’s schools ready for the test, that computers used for testing were not available for instruction, and that educators were provided with no useful information or item analysis from this year’s PARCC results, rendering the test useless for informing instruction.

Guttman concluded with a request to the BESE: “I urge members to take the test before you vote tomorrow,” she said.

Others, including Madeloni, received loud applause when speaking broadly against the excessive focus on testing.

“What troubles me is the narrowness of the question you are asking — MCAS versus PARCC? In the hours and hours we’ve spent talking about testing in intricate detail, what haven’t we been talking about?” she asked.

“We haven’t been talking about joyful learning,” Madeloni said. “We haven’t been talking about creativity and imagination. We haven’t been talking about the moral courage that we study in literature and in history. We haven’t been talking about what it means to be citizens of a democracy.

“Let’s have a three-year moratorium on high-stakes testing to have that deeper conversation,” she said.

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