The Peabody School Committee voted unanimously Tuesday night to ask state officials to review a possible conflict of interest involving the education commissioner’s stance on a new standardized test that may replace MCAS.
Mitchell D. Chester, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, serves as chairman of the governing board for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a consortium of 25 states that is developing the new assessment system to reach national educational standards called Common Core. The PARCC test, which is administered online, aims to prepare students for college and careers.
Massachusetts adopted Common Core in 2010 and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education — which Chester advises — is scheduled to vote whether to replace MCAS with PARCC in 2015 after a two-year trial and assessment.
But a member of the Peabody School Committee is arguing that Chester’s leadership role with PARCC is an indication that the decision already has been made.
“It’s an outrageous conflict of interest and a breach of trust,” said School Committee member Dave McGeney during Tuesday night’s meeting. “It is very clear to me that there is not any two-year test drive. At a minimum, the citizens of Massachusetts deserve a fair, unbiased opinion.”
Chester, who has been commissioner for six years, said he is confident that his role with PARCC is not a conflict of interest. He said he sought advice from the State Ethics Commission in 2013 and submitted two separate disclosures detailing his role with PARCC that were signed off on by Matthew Malone, the state education secretary, and Maura Banta, chairwoman of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“My interest is providing the strongest possible program for the students of Massachusetts,” Chester said. “We’ve had MCAS for 17 years and we wanted to do more with students involving writing and applying their knowledge. We wanted to implement more problem solving, online technologies for faster turnaround for teachers, and implement more use of digital tools.”
A trial run of the test in more than 1,000 schools across the state that began in March already has generated a backlash in several communities, including Peabody. Critics say the test overburdens smaller school districts, puts unnecessary stress on students, relies too heavily on technical ability, and needs more study before implementation. The Peabody School Committee last month voted to allow parents to have their children opt out of taking the pilot test.
Peabody School Committee members also have argued that a new test is unnecessary, since Massachusetts students’ achievement has been ranked the highest nationwide for the past five years.
“MCAS is already the best system in the country,” said McGeney.
School Committee member Beverley Ann Griffin Dunne said she has received numerous calls from teachers saying that they and their students are exhausted and stressed with the PARCC pilot test.
Griffin Dunne called the potential adoption of the PARCC test “a dangerous point in American educational history,” noting the burden on districts to provide technology at the potential expense of teacher and aide positions.
“It’s going overboard. They are taking the educators out of this equation,” said Griffin Dunne.
Griffin Dunne also said that she is troubled by the appearance of “big business opportunities” coming down the road for school districts that will be forced to provide technology and infrastructure for the online assessments.
She also raised the question whether the state should have been more forthcoming about Chester’s leadership role with the PARCC consortium.
“There is an appearance of a conflict,” she said. “It should be brought out and discussed. It was never discussed that Mitchell Chester is the chair of the PARCC governing board . . . What allows the commissioner of the DOE to lead PARCC?”
The Peabody School Committee mailed letters to Governor Deval Patrick, Attorney General Martha Coakley, the State Ethics Commission, and the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education asking for their opinions on a potential conflict of interest regarding Chester and PARCC.
The original motion by McGeney called for either Chester’s removal as the education commissioner or his stepping down from his PARCC position. The motion was amended when three of the six members of the committee said that proposal was too drastic.
Bella Travaglini can be reached at bellatrav@