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Feds tell Mass. it could lose school aid over two-test idea

The US Department of Education has warned Massachusetts that it could lose a modest amount of federal funding because the state plans to administer two standardized tests this spring as it develops a new assessment.

The warning was issued Monday in a letter from a DOE administrator to Mitchell D. Chester, the state's commissioner of elementary and secondary education. It pointed out that states are required to administer a single test to all students by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, recently reauthorized by Congress as the Every Student Succeeds Act.

But Chester said Tuesday that he would stand firm on using both the MCAS and the PARCC test while state officials come up with a hybrid assessment that combines elements of both.


Time spent developing the test will delay the return to a single assessment tool for all schools statewide until 2017, when the new test is expected to be ready.

Massachusetts obtained a federal waiver on the single-test requirement in 2011 to try out the PARCC — the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test — which was under consideration as a replacement for the state's longstanding MCAS test.

Both that waiver and a subsequent extension have now expired, according to the letter to Chester from Ann Whalen, a top federal education official.

The state's violation of the act triggered Whalen to declare Massachusetts "high risk," putting in jeopardy some of the federal funding the state receives under Title I, which helps fund schools with high percentages of children from low-income families.

Whalen's letter did not specify how much federal money might be withheld if Massachusetts fails to switch to a single test by next spring.

The state received about $231 million for the current fiscal year in Title I funding, according to Jacqueline Reis, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.


But the "high risk" designation will not affect local schools or districts, Reis said. It will only affect administrative funding used to pay salaries of state education officials. Reis said that portion of the funding amounted to $2.1 million for the current fiscal year.

Chester said Massachusetts would stick to the existing plan, adopted by a vote of the board of education last month after a two-year tryout of the PARCC, which was developed under Chester's guidance.

Rather than keep MCAS or replace it with PARCC, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to create a blend of the tests based upon Chester's 11th-hour shift in policy after years of advocating for PARCC.

"I do not believe that the US Department of Education putting us on 'high risk' status is sufficient reason for us to change our plans to offer districts a choice between assessments in spring 2016 and to create a new, next-generation assessment for spring 2017," he said in a statement.

Chester said state education officials value their collaboration with the federal government, but "there are times when partners will disagree."

"When that happens, our first and foremost obligation is to do what is right for Massachusetts," he said in the statement. "We will submit a request for reconsideration, but regardless of the outcome, we will implement the thoughtful plan on which our board voted."

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.