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The Boston Globe

Metro

Schools near deadline on whether to embrace new testing system

Many Massachusetts school districts are racing to meet a state deadline to decide whether to try out a new online testing system or stick with the nearly two-decade-old MCAS, a move igniting passionate debates at school committee meetings across the region.

So far, 52 districts have decided to try out the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers next spring, while 40 districts have decided to stay with the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, state education officials said Wednesday. Collectively, the two groups represent about a quarter of all districts statewide.

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The Framingham School Committee decided Tuesday to stay with MCAS, at least for now. The Arlington School Committee, after much debate last week, pushed off its decision until next week, while the Peabody School Committee voted early last month, wanting to be the first district to register its support for the MCAS tests.

Local officials offered wide-ranging rationales for their decisions.

“The tide is absolutely turning on PARCC,” said David McGeney, a Peabody School Committee member. “We should stick with what works best. MCAS is not perfect, but it is better than anything else out there. It has a record of unprecedented achievement. Who cares how old it is?”

He said Peabody’s superintendent and all 10 school principals recommended that the district keep MCAS.

But in Revere, Superintendent Paul Dakin had a different viewpoint. He said PARCC is better aligned with the school system’s new curriculum, revised over the past few years to reflect the incorporation of national academic standards for math and English. He also likes giving students an extra year to try out online tests.

“I don’t want a technological divide to contribute to an achievement gap,” Dakin said.

The Revere School Committee is expected to vote on the proposal next week.

Districts have until Oct. 1 to tell the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education which test they would like to administer next spring, but districts that register their decision by June 30 are guaranteed the testing system they want. That is because the state has only limited funding for the PARCC tests next spring and is seeking to have roughly half the districts take them.

Splitting districts between MCAS and PARCC is part of a two-year experiment that aims to help state education officials decide whether the PARCC should replace the MCAS. After the results are analyzed, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is expected to vote on the future of MCAS in fall 2015.

Educators widely expect the state to adopt the new test, being developed by a consortium of more than a dozen states headed by Mitchell D. Chester, the Massachusetts commissioner of elementary and secondary education.

In a press call Wednesday, Chester said he was pleased with the tryout so far, which began in March with random testing of more than 80,000 students across the state. He stressed that no decision has been made on adoption.

“I refer to it as a test drive,” Chester said.

“You wouldn’t buy a car without taking it out for a test drive.”

In acknowledgment that the PARCC remains an unknown commodity, the state has promised that poor performance would not have an adverse impact on a district’s standing with the state under its school-rating system.

The PARCC will not be offered to 10th-graders, who will continue taking the MCAS, a state graduation requirement.

The three largest urban systems — Boston, Worcester, and Springfield — have the option of having some schools take the PARCC and others the MCAS. Brian Ballou, a School Department spokesman, was unable to say Wednesday whether Boston has made a decision about how it would exercise that option.

Chester said he expects many districts will make their decisions in coming weeks.

Rebecca Steinitz, outgoing president of the Arlington Education Foundation, said that the town’s School Committee had a spirited discussion about the PARCC last week and that she remains unpersuaded about its benefits.

“The PARCC consortium is not giving out substantive data on the success or lack thereof of the field tests,” she said. “The state Education Department is asking us to take on faith that the PARCC is a good test.”

The consortium is expected to release data about this spring’s field tests Thursday.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.
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