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Questions on testing alternative to MCAS

Officials in a number of area school districts are only grudgingly going along with pilot testing for a standardized exam that could eventually replace the state’s MCAS program.

Norfolk’s School Committee went as far as requesting the state allow the town’s schools to offer an opt-out for parents who don’t want their child to participate in the trial run for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, commonly referred to as PARCC, and other districts also looked into the possibility.

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But the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education told Norfolk officials — and others in the state who have sought an opt-out — that the pilot program falls under a law that allows it to require standardized testing, according to agency spokesman J.C. Considine.

“In state law there is no opt-out provision, and we view PARCC as coming under the umbrella of the state testing system,” Considine said.

The test is being considered as a possible successor to the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams, and to the standardized tests being offered by 15 other states as well. Administered to students in grades 3 to 11, the test is being developed to be in line with the national Common Core standards, implemented in 2010.

Pilot testing will be conducted in two stretches, with the first one being offered in some districts last month and continuing this month, and the second phase taking place near the end of the school year.

Ingrid Allardi, superintendent of Norfolk’s school system, said the district will obey the state’s decision and expects all students to participate in the tests, which will be conducted in two fourth-grade classes.

‘We don’t believe in double-testing and the loss in instructional time.’

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The efforts to offer an opt-out were driven by the School Committee, and were not supported by the district’s administration, Allardi said.

“We want to participate,” she said. “We want to have a role in shaping it, if it is the tool we end up moving forward with.”

Not all school administrations are as enthusiastic.

Joyce Edwards, director of instructional services for the Franklin school system, said every step had been taken to ensure that the testing, which will be conducted this week and in May in eight schools across the district, will have as minimal an impact on daily instruction as possible.

“There is always an extra burden when there is extra testing,” Edwards said. “We took every exemption available to avoid double-testing. Beyond that the state has been quite clear there is not an opt-out option.”

Franklin’s schools obtained MCAS exemptions from the state for students who take the PARCC pilot test. If students take a PARCC test in English or math, they won’t have to take the same section in MCAS.

Edwards said if an opt-out was allowed by the state, the district probably would have offered it.

“We absolutely would have considered that,” she said. “We don’t believe in double-testing and the loss in instructional time.”

The Mendon-Upton Regional School District also sought to offer an opt-out to parents before the state notified officials that it was not an option.

In Norfolk, School Committee chairman Shawn Dooley, who also serves as a state representative, said he was not satisfied with the state’s explanation for not giving parents a choice.

“They are using the MCAS language for enforcing it,” Dooley said. “I think it’s important for parents to know this is going on. I just can’t wrap my brain around what the benefit is for children.”

Dooley, a father of four, said he was concerned over the added stress that another test could place on his third-grade daughter.

“She’s a pleaser, she wants to do a great job on everything she does,” Dooley said. “Personally, I would opt out if I had that option as a parent.”

He believes the state should share the results with the schools and parents of students who take the tests.

“We can’t determine from a school district standpoint how well a test works when we don’t know what the results are,” Dooley said.

Considine, the education agency’s spokesman, said the pilot testing is intended to gauge the quality of the exam, and providing districts and parents with the results may not be an accurate reflection of the student’s educational progress.

“It’s important to figure out what is working and what isn’t, and to work out the technical elements,” Considine said. “This is standard practice, any kind of big standardized test, this is what you do.”

About 81,000 students from about 75 percent of school districts in the state will be participating in the pilot program, Considine said, and the tests are expected to take most students two to three hours to complete.

“We understand there might be some inconvenience, but we don’t see it as a huge burden,” Considine said.

“We expect and we need all the students selected for the field test to participate. We think there is an opportunity here for the testing to be more engaging for students.”

Jarret Bencks can be reached at jbbencks@gmail.com.
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