Baker: PARCC decision sits with ED board, not Chester

Printed from:

Written by Andy Metzger

Citing his chairmanship of the board governing a new standardized testing system, a think tank has called for the Massachusetts education commissioner to recuse himself from the process of determining whether to adopt that new system.

Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester is the chair of the Governing Board of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers, known as PARCC.

Chester is also tasked with making a recommendation to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on whether to adopt PARCC as the state’s assessment tool for public school students or stick with the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, known as MCAS.

“This is clearly a conflict of interest,” the Pioneer Institute said in a statement. The institute, which has mobilized against the Common Core multistate educational standards that form the basis for PARCC, alleged that Chester may have already made up his mind to scrap MCAS.

“The commissioner’s interactions with local education leaders have led many to believe that the decision to abandon MCAS has already been made,” Pioneer wrote. “Brookline Superintendent and Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents President William Lupini, in a 2014 letter to the town’s school committee, flatly stated that ‘MCAS will be phased out in favor of either PARCC or another new ‘next generation’ assessment after the 2015 test administration.”

Though he is tasked with making a recommendation to the board, Chester does not have a vote, according to education department spokeswoman Jacqueline Reis. She said Chester’s position as chair of PARCC’s governing board is uncompensated and the entire board is composed of education chiefs in participating states.

Gov. Charlie Baker said he doesn’t think Chester’s position “renders him unable to participate in the conversation,” and said the decision would be up to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE).

Under Chester, Massachusetts schools have piloted PARCC exams, a development that Baker has criticized, citing a lack of public input.

Baker stood by the commissioner on Tuesday.

“I was the only person in Massachusetts who testified against the move to Common Core back in 2010. But I don’t think my position or his is necessarily relevant here because this is going to be a BESE decision. This is going to be made by the board, which is why I asked the board to conduct these hearings in the first place,” Baker told reporters at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference in Boston. He said, “Everybody knows what his background is and what his relation to this is, just as they know what my background is and my relationship to all this is, which is why I wanted the board to be the arbiter of this conversation.”

Pledging to keep an open mind, Baker this year launched hearings that he said were intended to facilitate public comments on whether to make the switch.

“I think it’s an embarrassment that a state that spent two years giving educators, families, parents, administrators and others an opportunity to comment and engage around the assessment system that eventually became MCAS basically gave nobody a voice or an opportunity to engage in a discussion at all before we went ahead and executed on Common Core and PARCC,” Baker said in March when announcing the appointment of Paul Sagan as chairman of the education board.

A Republican who won the Corner Office last November, Baker was an outspoken opponent of joining the federally supported multistate Common Core initiative during his unsuccessful 2010 run for governor.

“We should be the best, not another part of the pack,” Baker said at that time.

At a forum held by the Boston Foundation this January, Chester said the current testing system had significant problems in accurately determining college readiness and said PARCC would create “a whole new paradigm.”

“The commissioner is continuing to evaluate PARCC effectiveness and has not decided whether he will recommend PARCC to the Board. It is worth noting that Commissioner Chester, unique among the leaders of other PARCC states, recommended his state take a two-year tryout of PARCC before deciding whether to adopt it, which reflects the fact that the commonwealth’s needs are first in his mind,” the education department said in a statement.

The statement also cited a committee’s performance evaluation of Chester which was adopted by the full board, which said, “The Commissioner’s role as board member and chair of the PARCC governing board has been important to Massachusetts, ensuring that the test is developed for the benefit of the states and not the vendor. The Commissioner’s chairmanship allows Massachusetts to closely monitor test quality, insist on high-quality studies of the test’s reliability and validity, provide leadership to other states, and potentially move to a next-generation assessment in a more affordable way than the state could manage alone. The committee affirms its full support for the Commissioner playing this role for the benefit of the Commonwealth.”

A former Ohio education official, Chester has led the state government apparatus overseeing local public education since 2008. Chester has been chair of PARCC’s governing board since its inception, according to an ethics notice he filed of his interest in PARCC in 2013.

The state’s education board voted to adopt the Common Core standards in July 2010, and in November 2013 the board voted to adopt a two-year PARCC transition plan, to be followed by a decision on whether to completely shift to the new system, Chester wrote a year ago disclosing his position in PARCC governance.

“I do not believe there is a risk of undue favoritism or improper influence because my recommendation about whether Massachusetts should adopt PARCC as its new assessment system will be made with full transparency,” Chester wrote to the former education secretary and former education board chairwoman in July 2014.

Chester wrote that he initially was slated to serve as president of PARCC’s nonprofit arm, PARCC Inc., until the organization’s bylaws changed. Reis said he never held that position.

In an April 2014 letter provided by the education department, the Ethics Commission determined that Chester’s dual roles did not “require any further action on our part.”

Pioneer raised financial considerations for PARCC as a potential motivation that might encourage adoption of the test in Massachusetts.

The PARCC consortium has dropped from 26 states to seven, along with Washington, D.C., and with the recent departure of Ohio from the consortium, PARCC can only count on providing testing service to 5 million students, compared to the more than 25 million it would have served at the height of participation, Pioneer wrote. The institute said declining participation creates “enormous pressure on the commissioner, as the chairman of PARCC, to ensure that the testing consortium does not lose any more states.”

[Antonio Caban contributed reporting]