New Bedford presses parents to accept PARCC exams

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NEW BEDFORD – School officials in this seaside city are pressing parents to allow their children to take the controversial PARCC exams, claiming that too many opt-outs of the Common Core-aligned tests may harm the district financially and otherwise.

The controversy over the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers testing highlights resistance to the exam, which the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to scrap in November. This is the last year that students in Massachusetts will take the PARCC exam. The state plans to develop new assessments, labeled MCAS 2.0, to be rolled out in spring 2017.

But on Monday New Bedford Schools Superintendent Pia Durkin defended the exams in a statement, arguing that “the stakes are very high for New Bedford,” according to South Coast Today. The news site said Durkin defended the exam at a school committee meeting in which a resolution to require schools to alert parents that they could keep their children from taking the test was rejected by the panel, 5-2.

Mayor Jon Mitchell, who serves as school committee chairman, voted against the resolution to notify parents of the opt-out option, proposed by members Chris Cotter and Joshua Amaral.

Although he has reservations “personally” about excessive student testing, and believes that the PARCC is an “imperfect” assessment, Mitchell said in an interview Tuesday afternoon that the city has higher priorities than a debate over the exam. He added that improvements in student performance are already showing up as a result of efforts to meet achievement benchmarks.

“We are in the midst of a very aggressive reform effort against a headwind of significant challenges,” Mitchell said. “These challenges include funding restraints, poverty in our city, a demographic tide of dependency in our city.”

The discussion over the assessments are a “distraction” from that overall reform effort, Mitchell said.

“We are trying to offer high-performing students the opportunity to excel and get into top colleges,” he said. “And that leaves little time for these philosophical debates that are best left to communities in far more affluent areas.”

Legally, students (or their parents on their behalf) have a right to refuse the PARCC exam, as state Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said in a January memo. Surveys show widespread dissatisfaction with PARCC and Common Core, and a ballot initiative may give voters the chance to rescind the 2010 move to adopt Common Core and restore curriculum frameworks that were in place earlier.

Nevertheless, Durkin told parents and students at the committee meeting that they “need to embrace” the controversial test.

New Bedford officials are concerned that if enough students do not take the exam the state may cut off aid to the district, which supplies about 85 percent of the budget, according to South Coast Today. Also, if opt out numbers are high, the district may not be able to gain more autonomy from the state. It is currently one level above being put into state receivership.

If as many as 10 percent of a school’s students refuse to take the standardized tests, the school can’t be ranked higher than a Level 3. If more than 5 percent opt out, a school can’t reach the top Level 1 status, Durkin said.

But at Monday’s committee meeting, several parents said they will keep their kids from taking the test, the local newspaper reported. Some cited their children’s anxiety over the exams.

Matthew Brown, who teaches social studies at Monomoy Regional High School in Harwich, wrote in the Cape Cod Times last week that funding threats to school districts that don’t administer the tests are toothless:

“In theory, too many parents opting their kids out of testing will mean less federal money for local districts. In practice, however, because of widespread opt-outs by parents, the federal threat to cut state funding has proved a paper tiger,” he wrote.

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis.