Anxiety, déjà vu grip School Committee testing discussion

MCAS-vs.-PARCC vote could occur Dec. 17

A School Committee debate over standardized testing Thursday, Nov. 19, reflected divisions from 17 months ago, when the committee reached a stalemate over the issue.

The current discussion about the alphabet soup of MCAS and PARCC testing is expected to play out in two December meetings, with a vote possible Dec. 17, when board members are expected to hear what some Arlington principals think.

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Quote bar, redMCAS employs UPS drivers.
Paul Schlichtman

The immediate impetus for local angst was the Nov. 17 vote by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to develop a version of the MCAS test that will incorporate elements of a proposed replacement of PARCC -- or, as the hybrid test is known, "MCAS 2.0."

The Boston Globe reported that Massachusetts families and educators now face another year and a half of uncertainty as they wait to see what the hybrid version of the two tests looks like.

Before the committee weighed in, two members of the public had their say -- Rebecca Steinitz, a literacy consultant, provided warnings about shifting to PARCC (read her full text here) and Linda Hanson, president of the Arlington Education Association, the teachers' union, offered informative guidance, including the results of a survey of teachers (read her full text here).

MCAS, which stands for Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, is the standardized test required by the 1993 Education Reform Act. School Committee acceptance of the test has had its ups and downs, with objections raised 15 years ago about the graduation requirement. Until PARCC -- which stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers -- emerged, acceptance of MCAS generally increased.

 State teachers' union opposes

PARCC has had its own doubters, including the Massachusetts Education Association, whose president, Barbara Madeloni, said Nov. 17 that the new, hybrid test will be the PARCC by another name.

With this background, enter town school officials with their own views.

Chairman Paul Schlichtman called for change from MCAS, which he said employs UPS drivers. That is, as director of testing for Lowell public schools, he sees the steady stream of boxes of paper tests and their results shipped via the delivery company -- a process that could be avoided with PARCC's electronic testing.

He called requiring paper-and-pencil essays "pure foolishness ... We're asking kids to write" in an unnatural way.

To help support his view as a testing administrator, Schlichtman called on Maureen Murphy. The assistant principal at Ottoson who was in the audience handles testing. She said there is a "little adult anxiety about pulling this all together. Which route to take is not a "simple yes/no," she said, before allowing that PARCC with prep would be most beneficial.

Quote bar, redMCAS 2.0 puts new cover sheet on PARCC.
Bill Hayner

By contrast, member Bill Hayner said the hybrid test, MCAS 2.0, "is putting a new cover sheet on PARCC," and he doubted it could be finished in a year. He asked for reports on the ability of the IT department to handle such testing and well as cost, and was told the committee could get them.

Starks: 'I want to slow down the train'

Referring to results of a teacher survey presented by Hanson, member Cindy Starks said she was confused that the No. 1 fear is technology.

"I feel like this is being rammed down our throats," she said, adding she wants to see a detailed plan "I want to slow down the train." She said she "is sick and tired of listening to Mr. Chester."

She was referring to the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, who is on the governing board for the organization behind PARCC.

Member Jennifer Susse expressed concern about potential impact of testing on professional development, but Assistant Superintendent Laura Chesson said the administration had no intention of canceling any programs.

Member Kirsi Allison-Ampe added her questioning voice: "How is PARCC educationally better?"

Chesson provided a defense, saying it the test guides students toward skills we're focusing on and allows for accommodations for all students.

"I still see this as a flawed test," Allison-Ampe said.

Quote bar, redHybrid 'a fait accompli to us.'
Laura Chesson

Chesson responded: "It may sound rushed to you, but it seems like a fait accompli to us."

Superintendent Kathleen Bodie, who provided background but for the most part stood apartment from the debate, said, "There will always be a time when you have to make an adjustment."

Thielman seeks principals' views

Member Jeff Thielman wondered about "spending all this time on a test that will go away" and asked how the hybrid test will be perceived internally. The latter led to a specific -- that elementary principals expect to be present for a budget discussion at the Dec. 17 meeting, and the committee could learn their views of testing then.
Schlichtman summarized, suggesting further discussion of testing at the Dec. 10 and 17 meeting. If the board remains in a bind, he said, a vote could be put off until January.

The Nov. 19 discussion recalled two meetings in June 2014, when many of the same views were expressed.

Described as "one of the more searching board conversations in recent years," the committee voted June 26, 3-3, with member Jud Pierce absent, on a motion to agree by June 30 to test students using PARCC in the eight through ninth grades. Voting no were Jennifer Susse, Allison-Ampe and Hayner.

YourArlington reported that the deadlocked vote illustrated the committee's uncertainty about moving quickly toward new online testing, hesitating to follow the administration's recommendation to meet a state deadline.

There was no vote Nov. 19. Pierce was absent that night, performing in a play in Burlington, "Any Given Monday."

The meeting was held in the selectmen's chambers at Town Hall, because the elevator to the sixth floor of the high school, out of commission since August, has not been repaired.

Related links

Nov. 21, 2015: Testing debate: Teachers' union president outlines approach, reports survey
Nov.20, 2015: Caution urged as School Committee considers 'MCAS 2.0'
Nov. 17, 2015: Education board votes to adopt hybrid MCAS-PARCC test
June 26, 2014: Tie vote defeats plea for early online-testing decision
June 17, 2014: Facing state deadline, School committee grapples with new testing direction

This report was published Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015.