By Colleen Quinn
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- Some lawmakers, parents and teachers want state education policymakers to slow down implementation of a new online assessment test developed at the federal level until there is a clearer picture of how much it will cost for the state to adopt it.
Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said Wednesday it would be a disservice to Massachusetts students if the state did not move forward with the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test, and education officials are working with lawmakers to nail down the costs of transitioning to the test that aligns with federal "common core" standards.
"It would be a huge mistake to pause or turn back the clock right now," Chester said during a conference call with reporters detailing observations from the test tryout conducted this spring. "Our educators have been at work for three years now realigning the curriculum. The new assessments are designed to be attuned to that."
Rep. Keiko Orrall, a Republican from Lakeville, filed legislation (H 4094) in April that would pause implementation of the PARCC test and hold back any further funding for it until cost estimates are finalized.
During an Education Committee hearing on the bill Wednesday, Orrall said school districts and education policymakers need to get a better understanding of how much it will cost to replace the MCAS with PARCC.
She and other critics also argued education officials should not be so quick to throw away the MCAS test, which they say is a national model that helped propel Massachusetts students to the top of the heap academically in comparison to other states.
"It is simply unclear to me why we are moving in this direction, and how much it is going to cost," Orrall said during the hearing.
The Obama administration has committed approximately $2 billion to help elementary and secondary schools across the nation make the transition, according to Chester. In Massachusetts, lawmakers earmarked $38 million for school technology upgrades in an information technology bond bill that passed in the House in January. The Senate has not voted on the bond bill yet.
After the hearing, lawmakers on the Education Committee quickly sent Orrall's bill to a legislative study - typically a dead end for legislation. Rep. Alice Peisch, who co-chairs the committee, said the legislation was unnecessary because lawmakers passed an amendment in the fiscal year 2015 state budget requiring the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to provide cost estimates. Negotiations between House and Senate leaders on a final fiscal 2015 budget proposal are ongoing.
This spring 80,000 students across the state took the PARCC test. The test will undergo a two-year tryout before the state Board of Education makes a final decision. Chester, who is chairman of PARCC's governing board, said Massachusetts was very involved in the development of the test.
"We are finding out what works, what doesn't work, what needs to be revised, what needs to be upgraded," Chester said.
In the fall of 2015, the state Board of Education will decide whether or not to sunset the MCAS and make PARCC the state's new assessment tool. The board could also decide to modify the MCAS test, incorporating PARCC components. Chester said the MCAS is essentially the same test the state has given for 17 years. "So it is time for an upgrade," he said.
Students who took the PARCC online reported they liked taking the test on a computer, and found some of the questions to be more challenging than the MCAS, according to Chester.
"Students reported the test was in the area they were ready for. It wasn't too difficult. It wasn't too easy," he said. "We got generally very positive feedback. We certainly found areas we will improve on in the testing environment."
Next year, school districts will have the option of administering the PARCC or the MCAS. So far, approximately 100 school districts have made a decision, with 57 percent choosing the PARCC test and 43 percent the MCAS, according to Chester.
"We anticipate half the state will take MCAS, half will take PARCC," he said.
Some critics of PARCC argue many school districts are not equipped to have all their students take tests on computers.
Chester said that is another reason to move forward with PARCC. Massachusetts may lead with its scores in math and English, but falls behind other states in technology investments, he said.
"There is one place we are not a leader, and that's ensuring we have 21st century classrooms," Chester said.
Revere School Superintendent Paul Dakin said his district opted to take the new test this spring partly because it was an online.
Revere administrators want every opportunity they can get to expose their students to computer skills, something they may not necessarily get at home with a large percentage of students living in poverty, Dakin said.
"I don't want a technology divide to contribute to an achievement gap." Dakin said.
Some opponents of switching to the PARCC test argue Massachusetts will lose local control to the federal government.
Rep. Viriato deMacedo, a Plymouth Republican, said he fears the state is moving to a federal system when the state-developed test is superior, and he compared it to Massachusetts' experience moving to a federal health care exchange under the Affordable Care Act.
"We were at the top of the heap when it came to health care," he said. "The reality is we moved quickly, and now we're stuck."
Debbie McCarthy, a 5th grade teacher from Hull, said she thinks the transition to the new test is happening too fast.
Sen. Bruce Tarr, a Republican from Gloucester, said he was a state representative when the Education Reform Act passed in 1993, leading to the MCAS test. As a result of the Education Reform Act, students in Massachusetts lead other states in math and English language arts, Tarr said during the hearing.
"I don't think we should abandon that lightly," he said.