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Franklin County school districts weigh PARCC vs. MCAS, results mixed

TURNERS FALLS — With the state offering a choice between getting an early start with the probable next big standardized test or continuing with the MCAS for the time being, area school districts have split more or less down the middle.

Deciding factors included uncertainty over the future, whether or not students at the various grade levels hosted by each district would benefit more from MCAS or PARCC practice, and technical capacity to offer an online test.

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers math and English tests are expected to replace the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System in the spring of 2016, pending a vote from the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in the fall of 2015.

PARCC is a project of 18 states and the District of Columbia intended to measure the success of the new Common Core education standards so far adopted by 43 states. The tests are offered by for-profit Pearson Education, Inc.

The PARCC tests have no science component, so the MCAS science tests will continue and if PARCC is adopted there will be a buffer of one to two years in which the 10th grade MCAS tests remain the graduation requirement.

Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spokesman JC Considine said districts have been told the MCAS will remain the graduation requirement through the class of 2018, this fall’s ninth-grade students who will be at the critical 10th grade in 2016 when the PARCC may be adopted. Considine said he expects the board to vote shortly to extend that MCAS hold-over year to the class of 2019, this fall’s eighth graders.

The class of 2020, the 2014-2015 seventh grade, could therefore be the first required to pass the PARCC to graduate. Considine said that whether the 10th or 11th grade PARCC would become the graduation standard has yet to be decided.

If the new crop of seventh graders are the first required to pass PARCC, they would do so with a minimum of two years’ practice with the test if they must pass it as 10th graders and three years if the 11th grade test becomes the benchmark.

Some will have a little more practice than others, as districts were given the choice between beginning the PARCC in the 2014-2015 school year or holding off a year until it does or does not become mandatory in 2015-2016.

Districts are required to register a decision by June 30 or Oct. 1, but if they wait until the second deadline the money may not exist in the state budget for the number of districts wishing to take a particular test.

Gill-Montague

In the Gill-Montague Regional School District, students next year will take the PARCC instead of the MCAS at all grades in which the MCAS was previously administered, except the 10th grade, where the MCAS remains as a gateway to graduation.

Superintendent Michael Sullivan said the early selection will prepare students and the district for the switch. Students in the lower grades will likely have to pass PARCC to graduate, much as they must pass the MCAS now.

This year’s state-mandated trial runs at a sampling of grades proved the district has the technical capacity to administer the online test, which was not a given, and the students will build experience with the test, Sullivan said. Districts opting into the PARCC are also held harmless in terms of their state ranking, meaning Gill-Montague need not worry that student scores on an unfamiliar test will send the district back to Level 4. The selection extends only to the elementary and middle schools, grades 3 through 8. The district had the option of introducing the PARCC tests in grades 9 and 11, where there is no major standardized test, but declined to do so.

Mahar area

Tari Thomas, superintendent of Mahar Regional School and the Orange and Petersham elementary schools, wrote that Orange Elementary has voted to participate in PARCC next year and the choice is up for votes in Petersham and Mahar at their meetings later this month.

Union 28 Superintendent Robert Mahler said that two of his pre-kindergarten through sixth grade school committees, Leverett and Swift River, have voted to administer the PARCC in its paper form and the Erving and Shutesbury committees have not yet voted.

Mahler said the recommendation was his, but was made and accepted with great trepidation. Mahler said he feels the state is twisting arms in the process of rolling out the test, and that his students are being used as guinea pigs for Pearson Education, Inc.

“Big business is walking into education in a way that is perhaps an injustice to the students,” Mahler said, but he has nevertheless recommended the early switch to PARCC. “Strategically for the kids it’s probably the best move. I’m hoping that I’m right, but I don’t know. We’ll find out, because I’m thinking the state is going to go with PARCC. It will give us a year in which we can practice the test.”

Like Gill-Montague, the Franklin County Technical School has declined the upper-grade tests. With only grades 9 and 11 to consider, administrators at the regional technical high school saw no advantage in moving to the PARCC tests a year before they have to, and had some misgivings about the impact of being held harmless. Regardless of state-level decisions still to be made, this fall’s ninth-grade and 11th-grade students will never see a PARCC graduation requirement and so would gain nothing by taking the test now.

Principal Richard Martin said that the school is currently in Level 2, but because they won’t know this year’s MCAS test results until this fall, could have slipped into Level 3. Being held harmless could therefore delay upward progress if they do happen to slip a level.

Greenfield

Greenfield Public Schools will continue with the MCAS at the decision of outgoing Superintendent Susan Hollins. Hollins wrote in her blog that she had learned that principals could not choose whether to participate on a school-by-school basis, and had therefore opted out.

Some districts are switching for grades 3-11, some 3-8 and some not at all, Hollins wrote. “There are issues with all three choices — if you switch, all the staff have to be retrained. If you do not switch you are stuck with the MCAS. There is already so much new training needed in Greenfield for different programs and projects — could our staff absorb one more item for whole-district training? Administrators thought not. Not this year,” Hollins wrote.

Mohawk regional

The Mohawk Trail Regional School System has also opted out of PARCC for the year, as has Frontier. Martha H. Barrett is superintendent of the Frontier Regional and Union 38 school districts, covering the Frontier middle and high school, Sunderland, Deerfield and Whately elementary schools and Conway Grammar School.

Frontier regional

Barrett said her Deerfield, Frontier and Whately school committees have voted to back her recommendation to stay with MCAS for the year, the others will vote this week.

Barrett said that after the pilot tests this year it is evident the district doesn’t have enough computers running the proper operating systems. “We know what we need, I’d like to have a year to plan to get it,” Barrett said. She also has concerns beyond the district’s available computers. The test has not yet been officially adopted by the state, the number of states involved is less than the nationwide goal, and Barrett is concerned about the for-profit Pearson’s involvement, and state Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester’s involvement. Chester is chairman of the PARCC governing board. Barrett said she has more questions than answers.“Given the choice I’d rather wait a year and see how it shakes out,” she said.

Pioneer Valley Regional

A decision has not yet been made in the Pioneer Valley Regional School District. Superintendent Dayle Doiron said a recommendation will be brought to the School Committee next Thursday. “We’re leaning in the direction of a recommendation toward PARCC,” he said.

You can reach Chris Curtis at: ccurtis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 257

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