Education is always a hot topic in Massachusetts, but this year it seemed to be on fire. Here are a few of the hot spots — and perhaps the hottest is standardized testing.
By last school year, more than half of Massachusetts school districts had piloted a new standardized test called PARCC. These took the place of the MCAS tests given in Massachusetts schools since 1998. PARCC is more closely aligned to Common Core standards and can be given on computers.
Over the year, teachers and administrators provided feedback on PARCC, and multiple studies were done to study the new test’s effects.
It all laid the groundwork for the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s November vote on whether the state should adopt a new standardized test. Teachers, parents, students, policymakers — everyone seemed to have a pro-MCAS or pro-PARCC stance.
But much of the controversy surrounded one figure: Mitchell Chester, Massachusetts commissioner of elementary and secondary education.
Chester played a dual role in this process. As education commissioner, he had to recommend which test to use. But he’s also the chair of PARCC’s governing board, an unpaid role in which he helps develop and implement the test.
Chester has always said there’s no conflict of interest at play, but many were skeptical throughout the process. For most of the year, it felt as if the state would choose PARCC. And many state officials implied that they preferred that test.
But the testing saga took a surprising turn in October, a few weeks before the vote. Chester indicated he’d recommend a test no one has seen yet, a so-called MCAS 2.0 that combines PARCC and MCAS.
“Clearly we have to go down a path of a next-generation MCAS,” he said, “and can we do that using the PARCC development that we were very much a part of.”
Then at the November board meeting, the state education board voted to adopt, sight unseen, just that: an MCAS 2.0 that is to begin in spring 2017.
This Year: Still Two Tests
Meanwhile, though, in spring 2016 schools will again have the choice to administer either PARCC or MCAS — but a version of MCAS that will include a few PARCC items. And that choice added another twist to the testing story just this week, when the U.S. Department of Education warned Chester that the state could lose about $2 million in federal funding as a result.
The department’s letter said states are required to administer a single test under federal law. Although Massachusetts received a waiver in 2011 so it could try out PARCC, the waiver has now expired, leaving the state in violation and at “high risk” of losing some federal funding under Title I if it again lets districts choose between two tests.
“I do not believe that the U.S. Department of Education putting us on ‘high risk’ status is sufficient reason for us to change our plans,” Chester said in a statement. “We will submit a request for reconsideration, but regardless of the outcome, we will implement the thoughtful plan on which our Board voted.”
His department spokeswoman also said these Title I funds are used for administrative salaries at the state level, so no local districts would be affected.
Although Chester indicated that MCAS 2.0 will be heavily based on PARCC, what it will actually look like or who will create it is still up in the air. State officials say they’ll name a vendor to create the new test by July.
But the change also comes as some lawmakers and the state’s largest teachers’ union have called for a three-year moratorium on high-stakes testing. This doesn’t mean no testing. Rather, they’d like standardized tests eliminated from teacher evaluations, dropped as a high school graduation requirement, and not considered when deciding whether to designate a school as underperforming.
Charter Schools Seek Expansion
This year has seen some major pushes to raise the state’s cap on the number of charter schools. Right now, there’s a limit to the number of charter schools any district can have. That’s because money follows a student from public schools to charter schools, and there’s a ceiling on the amount of money the state can divert from local school districts to fund charter schools.
In recent years, we’ve been bumping up against that ceiling.
So a few pushes are underway to raise the cap in Massachusetts. Gov. Charlie Baker filed legislation to expand it, and there’s a ballot initiative in the works that would ask voters whether they want to expand the cap.
Meanwhile, in September lawyers from several Boston firms filed a class-action lawsuit to lift the cap. One of them is lawyer William F. Lee.
“The charter school cap stands in the way arbitrarily of some children obtaining that constitutionally mandated minimally adequate education,” Lee said.
Charter supporters say charter schools provide an alternative for families who are unhappy with public education. It’s a market element in public education — the idea that more choice should produce better school options.
Critics say charters focus too much on test scores and employ harsh discipline. A study by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees found that many charter schools don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids or, if they do, don’t keep them.
The biggest argument against charters is what Citizens for Public Schools Director Lisa Guisbond has said: that charters take resources away from public schools.
“And if we lift the cap those losses will just get much bigger,” Guisbond said, “meaning district school students lose access to important educational opportunities.”
BPS Gets A New Leader
In Boston Public Schools, the big story of the year was the arrival of a new superintendent. After two years with an interim superintendent at the head of Massachusetts’ largest school system, Tommy Chang arrived from Los Angeles in July to take control of the district.
He’s off to an ambitious start. His first 100-day plan called for an expansion of “advanced work” classes, which are currently available to only about 10 percent of the students in fourth through sixth grade. That’s important because they can pave the way for higher achievement and a better chance at getting into one of the city’s exam schools.
Struggling With The Achievement Gap
The initiative to expand advanced work classes is part of a larger effort to tackle persistent achievement gaps between black and Latino students and their peers.
Some BPS studies have found that black and Latino male students are often on a separate, lower educational track. White and Asian male students in Boston’s schools are 1.2 times more likely to graduate than their black male peers and 1.4 times more likely than Latino males in the district.
Those studies also found that Boston lacks cultural competence in teaching black and Latino male students.
“What we didn’t find,” said lead author Rosann Tung, “was a systemic, schoolwide approach to reaching black and Latino males and engaging them in their education.”
On the first day of school this year, Chang said it’s something he’ll focus on.
“We know that less than 20 percent of black and Latino boys who start kindergarten in Boston Public Schools graduate 12 to 13 years later with a MassCore curriculum,” he said. “That has to increase.”
Leaving Behind No Child Left Behind
Earlier this month, President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act. That’s the long-awaited replacement for the controversial No Child Left Behind. In a victory for conservative lawmakers, it gives a lot of responsibility for education matters to states.
The new law is set to take full effect in September 2017. Over the course of the year, it will be important to see how that rolls out in Massachusetts, especially as the state education department is now being tasked to do a whole lot more, most likely without new resources.