Berkshire County school officials await state decision on standardized testing


State education officials on Tuesday are expected to vote on which standardized exam to embrace in the coming years, a decision with significant implications for school districts in the Berkshires and across the state.

But regardless of what the state decides, public schools in the Berkshires will be left to navigate whatever path is chosen while continuing to act in the best interest of the school, its students, staff and families and their specific needs.

"We have a real obligation to chart a course and try to stick with it," said Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon, who also heads the Berkshire County Superintendents' Roundtable.

"In our district, whatever the state measures are going to be — which is a reality and something we have to deal with — it is the internal process which is meaningful ... We have an obligation to define what we think is important too."

The 11-member Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is expected to discuss and vote at its 8:30 a.m. meeting in Malden.

As of Monday afternoon, the state board was still weighing input and evidence on which standardized exam is best for evaluating the abilities of the commonwealth's students in the 21st century.

A public comment session was held at Malden High School to discuss the three primary exam options that have been on the table this fall:

• the nearly 20-year-old Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS);

• the mathematics and English language arts exams now in their second year of use as developed by a multi-state consortium known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC);

• or a recent proposal announced by state education Commissioner Mitchell Chester for the state to develop a "next-generation, computer-based MCAS assessment program" that blends elements of the MCAS and PARCC exams with other customized items.

In his recommendation, Chester wrote "The approach I have recommended lets us continue to benefit from the high-quality, next-generation PARCC assessment in which we've invested a great deal of time and effort. But it also ensures that the assessment will reflect the commonwealth's unique needs and concerns."

Dillon said at the most fundamental level, assessments are meant to help students and schools, not overwhelm or overburden them.

"The most important thing is gives kids the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding [through exams]," he said, "and that we get timely feedback on it so we can use that to shift our instructional approaches so we can set kids up to learn."

He noted that historically with high stakes testing, schools and students don't get their state test results until months later. While MCAS results from spring 2015 have been returned to all, it was only last week that districts received PARCC results and it won't be until later this month or early December that schools and families receive PARCC scores for individual students.

Central Berkshire Regional School District Superintendent Laurie Casna said that she's eager to see what Tuesday's board vote means for schools and how they prepare for testing sessions in the spring.

"We all thought we were going in one direction with PARCC, but [the board] seems to be steering back to a more locally controlled assessment," she said. "So spring 2016 will be a transition year."

Passing MCAS exams still stand to remain a graduation requirement, at least through the Class of 2019,

With his next generation proposal, Chester said he plans to ask the board to hold harmless districts administering PARCC in Grades 3-8 for the first time in spring 2016 for any negative changes in their school and district accountability levels, as was policy for PARCC testing schools this past spring.

But like Dillon, Casna said in Berkshire County public schools there are other priorities to testing, such as developing and implementing strong curriculum, ensuring school safety, and fostering students and families who are engaged in education.

"People seem to be very concerned with the whole child in the Berkshires," she said. "I'm lucky that I have a school committee that's as interested in social-emotional learning among our students as well as PARCC scores."

Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.


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