PARCC slowly gaining on MCAS, but hurdles remain

PARCC isn’t standing still. Heading into the second year of field testing in the spring of 2015, about 60 percent of Massachusetts school districts have opted to jettison MCAS for PARCC, the new online student assessment regime; roughly 40 percent of districts have decided to stay with MCAS.

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education hoped for a robust showing of adopters during the two-year “test drive” in order to give the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education enough evidence about PARCC’s pros and cons before it votes on whether to replace MCAS with the controversial online test. PARCC is designed to line up with the national Common Core standards that the state adopted several years ago.

The statewide 60-40 split mirrors what the The MetroWest Daily News found when the newspaper took a closer look at the schools in its coverage area: Of the 20 schools it examined in the Metrowest/Milford region, two districts opted to switch over to PARCC for the spring testing period, while eight decided to stay with MCAS. Some districts such as Framingham and Marlborough are biding their time and have yet to make a decision.

The PARCC versus MCAS debate comes down to several issues. MCAS supporters are taking a don’t-mess-with-success approach that has helped to put Massachusetts in the forefront of K-12 education nationwide.

PARCC proponents argue that the new testing regime demands more of students and will provide a more comprehensive picture of the skill sets that students need to succeed in college and in the workplace.

In addition to the philosophical wrangling over the best test, there has been a considerable amount of handwringing over practical concerns, such as how cash-poor districts will cope with technology and training costs involved in making the switch to an online test.

The PARCC versus MCAS debate continues to simmer in school districts, but state officials largely support the switch over: Massachusetts is one of the key PARCC states and state Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester chairs the PARCC governing board. But some district officials are beginning to wonder out loud about the depth of the Bay State commitment and whether the test might eventually be might be discarded.

The number of PARCC states continues to shrink. Once 23 states strong, the group has dwindled down to 15, with Louisiana withdrawing in June.

A rival group of more than 20 states, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) are test-driving another online assessment. Four New England states, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont, are members of this group. (One of the major differences between PARCC and SBAC is that SBAC is “computer adaptive,” meaning that during a test, students are given harder or easier follow-up questions based on their previous responses.)

Some of the resistance to PARCC has little to do with the merits or the drawbacks of the test itself. Pearson, the company developing the actual test students take, has emerged as a target in several states.

Pearson is the sole test vendor developing the PARCC test. The company could earn more than $1 billion if enough states use its test. The SBAC allows individual states to solicit bids from a number of companies to design the test used in their schools.

Politico calls the battle over testing contracts the “new front” in the war over Common Core.

The PARCC-Pearson connection helped doom the test in Louisiana. Gov. Bobby Jindal advocated abandoning PARCC since the framework does not allow for a competitive bid process for potential test vendors. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer also cited concerns about the lack of a bidding process in her state’s decision to dropkick PARCC.

The American Institutes for Research (AIR), a Washington-based nonpartisan, nonprofit behavioral and social science research group, used the lack of a competitive bidding process in New Mexico as the basis for a lawsuit to force the state to drop PARCC. However, the research organization lost the battle.

Massachusetts officials kept a close eye on that fight, and they appear to be encouraged. Chester said in a statement provided to Education Week that the New Mexico ruling “allows us to get back to the work started by states and strengthened by thousands of teachers-developing a new generation of high-quality assessments.”

But the research group has yet to decide whether it intends to appeal the New Mexico decision. A fresh lawsuit could put a damper on the move to PARCC in Massachusetts and elsewhere. For the moment, AIR isn’t giving up. “We’d like to see more competition,” Jon Cohen, an AIR executive vice president, told the Santa Fe Reporter. “We’re going to circle our wagons and consider our options.”

GABRIELLE GURLEY

   

BEACON HILL

The defense attorneys at the trial of former Probation commissioner John O’Brien lay the problems at the agency on the chief justice for administration and management at the Trial Court, CommonWealth reports.

State Sen. Dan Wolf offers a five-step program for the state to address the wealth and capital concentration described in French economist Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

The state’s troubled Department of Children and Families has added 230 new employees but has still not been able to reduce caseloads for its social workers.

A gun bill is scheduled for debate today in the House, the Associated Press reports.

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone and Andre Leroux, the executive director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, call for scrapping the state’s zoning law.

Former state representative Daniel Webster of Hanson of has had his law license reinstated nearly 18 months after it was suspended when he admitted to misusing client funds.

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

The NAACP’s Will Singleton says municipal government in Pittsfield doesn’t reflect the changing demographics of the city, CommonWealth reports in the new summer issue.

As Fall River lays off 28 firefighters this week because a $14.4 million federal grant is expiring, fire officials warn of safety issues and slower response times with the closing of two engines.

A Globe editorial says Mayor Marty Walsh took a risk in appointing department veteran Joseph Finn to serve as Boston fire commissioner and chief because the department is need of reforms that may prove challenging for an insider to pursue.

The Lynn City Council approves federal flood maps that will probably hike insurance premiums for many community residents, the Item reports.

NATIONAL POLITICS/WASHINGTON

The National Review takes a look at the lay of the land for a Republican takeover of the Senate and finds it’s not as much a lock as once thought, though it’s still leaning in that direction. And Sarah Palin isn’t going to help matters with her call to impeach President Obama.

Cleveland celebrates landing the 2016 Republican National Convention, but do conventions really do much for cities?

CASINOS

Mohegan Sun would pay Boston $18 million a year under a surrounding community agreement being hatched with the city, the Globe reports.  Meanwhile, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is looking to Wynn Resorts to up the ante.

Casino opponents aren’t mad at Walsh for negotiating a deal with Mohegan Sun, which is seeking to build a casino in Revere, NECN reports. The conciliatory pose struck by anti-casino leader John Ribeiro in the NECN interview, however, is at odds with a sharply critical statement he released that tore into Walsh and Boston for “cutting another deal” with the casino industry that’s not in the interest of city residents.

ELECTIONS

Middlesex DA opponents Marian Ryan and Michael Sullivan mix it up in a Lowell debate about experience and qualifications, the Sun reports.

State Treasurer Steve Grossman sits down with Emily Rooney to tout his run for governor, labeling himself a “progressive job creator” running against a “career prosecutor.”

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

While some nonprofits have shown success in raising new revenues through accepting Bitcoin donations, many charities are still leery of the digital currency exchanged over the Internet.

A bill to allow for-profit debt relief firms to operate in Massachusetts is drawing support — and raising concerns among consumer advocates — as it moves through the Legislature.

“It’s Time to Fix the Very Pale, Very Male Boardroom” writes The New Republic‘s Bryce Covert.

The Boston Herald looks at complaints against cab drivers and finds that nothing much is being done about them.

EDUCATION

While some charter schools are accused of “creaming” top students, that couldn’t be further from the truth at Phoenix Charter Academy in Chelsea, which targets former dropouts, teen parents and others at the margins who traditional high schools don’t serve well, CommonWealth reports in the new summer issue released.

Barbara Madeloni , a fierce critic of standardized testing and the state’s new teacher evaluation system,delivered a jolt to the education establishment with her election as president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. Read what she has to say in this CommonWealth interview.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced a new initiative aimed at forcing states to ensure disadvantaged schools in low-income, high-minority regions have access to “quality teachers,” a move some say will allow states to use teacher evaluations to assess equity among schools.

Gordon College President Michael Lindsay says his letter to President Obama on hiring gays has been misconstrued, the Eagle-Tribune reports. Globe columnist Adrian Walker deems the school’s position at odds with the Christianity he was raised with.  

HEALTH CARE

Tennessee is keeping health care costs low by using narrow networks of doctors and hospitals, Governing reports.

The latest statistics on smoking from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that tobacco use among gays is nearly 31 percent, compared to 20.5 percent for heterosexuals, and officials are targeting the gay community with anti-smoking ads.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

Massachusetts prison spending ranked seventh in the United States, State House News reports.

The former roommate of Boston Marathon suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev takes the stand in the federal trial of a Tsarnaev friend who is charged with obstruction of justice in the case.

The Lucky 7 arcades in Gloucester and Danvers, which were shut down for illegal gaming activities, will not be allowed to reopen. But they will get back all their equipment and all charges have been dropped under a deal worked out with Attorney General Martha Coakley, the Salem News reports.

The Lowell City Council presses the police department to enforce the city’s curfew for youths under 17, the Sun reports.

MEDIA

Boston Globe CEO Mike Sheehan is deserving of the nickname Mr. Sunshine, CommonWealth reports in the Conversation feature of the magazine’s new summer issue.

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

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