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Massachusetts Insists On Assessment Choice Despite Federal Wrist Slap

Massachusetts is standing by its decision to offer its school districts a choice of which summative test they give this year, even though the U.S. Department of Education said the plan would violate federal law requiring states to use one test for all students.

As my colleague Alyson Klein reports this afternoon on the Politics K-12 blog, Massachusetts was one of six states whose waiver extensions were approved Thursday. But in the case of the Bay State, that approval came with an important caveat: The U.S. Department of Education would not approve an amendment that would have allowed Massachusetts to give its districts the choice this spring of using the state's current test, the MCAS, or using the PARCC assessments.

While the department refused to approve Massachusetts' testing-choice amendment, it did approve the main waiver request. State officials said they do not risk losing their waiver by going ahead with the two-test-choice plan this spring, since they will be "in compliance" with the federal law requiring one test for all students in 2015-16, as Assistant Secretary Deborah S. Delisle specified in her letter.

In a letter to the state board of education on Thursday, Commissioner of Education Mitchell D. Chester said that the state should stick with its original timeline, letting districts "test drive" the PARCC exam alongside the MCAS in 2013-14 and 2014-15, and making a statewide decision in the fall of 2015 for the 2015-16 school year. It should stick with that plan, Chester said, despite the department's disapproval.

"We value our partnership with the federal government, but there are times when partners will disagree, and when that happens, our first and foremost obligation is to do what is right for Massachusetts," he wrote.

UPDATED: An education department official offered this explanation for the decision on Massachusetts:

Massachusetts sees the testing-choice plan as facilitating a smoother transition and making sure that it chooses the best assessment, but federal law doesn't allow the choice that it is permitting this year, the official said. Having multiple tests in a state simultaneously complicates comparisons of student learning and growth across districts and risks creating a two-tiered system that offers some students a more rigorous academic program than others.

Consequently, the department is not approving the waiver amendment Massachusetts sought, and is requiring it to detail what it will do to comply with federal testing law by 2015-16, the official said. Because Massachusetts has promised to do this, and because MCAS is seen as one of the most rigorous tests in the country, the official said, the department is declining to take any enforcement action right now, but it could change its mind if the state doesn't tow the line according to the agreed-upon timetable.

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