Monday, February 13, 2012

Testing Home Rule...

Legislators, aides and union officials at Friday's Meeting
With city schools already more than a week behind schedule and many students still living in temporary housing after last year's tornado, Springfield City Councilors and the city's Beacon Hill delegation are looking to delay the city's participation in Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Systems test.  However, the proposal has received a cool reception from state education officials.  A spokesman for the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education seemed to foreclose any delay of more than a few days.

On Friday, at-large Councilor Kateri Walsh, chairwoman of the Intergovernmental Relations Committee held a hearing on home rule legislation allowing the city to push back MCAS testing from March-April to April-May.  The proposal is cosponsored by Walsh, at-large Councilor Thomas Ashe, Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton and Ward 8 Councilor John Lysak.  Representatives Sean Curran and Mike Finn and Senator Jim Welch attended.  Staffers from Representative Brian Ashe and Ben Swan and officials from Springfield teachers unions were also present.

The original mover behind this legislation was, according to those present, Springfield Education Association president Timothy Collins.  Collins himself was unable to attend the committee meeting as he was in Washington for an event with US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

While there was a consensus among all present that Springfield school children deserved the extra time, however that alone may not make it possible.  The Commissioner for Elementary and Secondary Education, Mitchell Chester, seemed to pour cold water on the idea in a letter to Mayor Domenic Sarno dated February 8th.  While Chester implied he had limited power to delay Springfield's testing schedule, he suggested that a Special Act would actually lead the city to default on meeting state education requirements.  Under any circumstances, failure to meet testing requirements would have severe repercussions for the school district and for students including a loss of funding and a loss of students' chances to meet graduation requirements.

Gov. Patrick in 2010 (WMassP&I)
A home rule petition seems doubly unlikely as would require the Governor Deval Patrick's signature.  As the commissioner is an executive appointee, it is likely that the governor would stand by Chester's assessment and veto home rule legislation that would create an exception to statewide policy the commissioner opposes. 

While unmentioned in Chester's letter, the officials in attendance speculated that cheating among students may be a concern if Springfield takes the test later than its neighbors, which would take the test on time.  J.C. Considine, the commissioner's spokesman, confirmed that the integrity of the test is one, but hardly the sole concern of state education officials

However, the legislative avenue presents other issues as well.  Curran, who sits on the Education Committee and would likely have jurisdiction over the city's home rule petition, said that the legislative process itself could delay a home rule petition beyond March.  Specifically, he noted that the bill would need to clear several committees with lead times of a week or two all before it could be passed by the House, assuming the Speaker puts it on the calendar at all.  A similar process through the Senate would follow.

Councilor Walsh (Facebook)
All officials in the room seemed agreed to pursue a two-pronged effort of home rule legislation and lobbying of the Governor and Chester.  Assistant City Solicitor Thomas Moore assured Walsh that if the Council acted on the petition Monday and the mayor signed it soon thereafter, the measure would be in the office of the clerk of the House of Representatives with a day or so.  However, the Byzantine bill-making process leaves executive action as the likeliest scenario.
Considine, the education spokesman, described the power of the commissioner to give districts a "temporary extension" for testing as narrow.  The commissioner could give districts like Springfield, "a few additional days," but little more than that.   Furthermore, he explained, any longer than that would jeopardize the state's ability to get prompt turnaround from contractors grading the test.  Given that the subject of the March/April tests, English Language, uses many open response answers, the turnaround time is already tight as answers must be graded by humans rather than a machine.  This prompt turnaround has been requested by school districts who want the results to begin planning curriculum for the next year.  Considine said test results in past did not come until some schools had practically reopened for the Fall.

Considine did say that Springfield may qualify for an extension of a few days given the weather as the state had done the same for parts of Massachusetts ravaged by an ice storm several years ago.  The spokesman also clarified Chester's claim that home rule legislation would cause Springfield to default on its testing obligations.  Without speaking to the legal implications of carving out an exception for Sprignfeild, he said an administration of the test in Springfield one month after the state was not practical due to the integrity issues relating to the test and turnaround with graders.  Crucially, he also said it may not be fair to students.

At Friday's hearing, teachers union officials said the idea had been circulating among educators across the state that the March/April administration of the Language Arts testing should be pushed further into April and May as officials are proposing for Springfield.  However, Considine disputed the notion of any "groundswell" for this change.  He noted that Math and Science are tested in May and into June.  Pushing testing another month forward could prove burdensome for students.  "We have high expectation in Massachusetts and we want every student to demonstrate his skills," Considine said of providing gaps between tests.  He also noted that compressing the timeline could complicating testing of disabled students who require more comprehensive administration of tests.

It seems probable that the council will pass the home rule petition at tonight's meeting and that the mayor will sign it.  The legislation poses none of the risks, the commissioner's office outlined, unless it becomes law, which seems improbable.  Either the legislature or the governor's office could easily kill this bill.  However, the debate may spark some broader conversations about how to administer tests after disasters.  

US Sec. of Education
Arne Duncan (wikipedia)
Complicating matters further, Massachusetts just received one of the first ten waivers to the No Child Left Behind Act.  While the most onerous parts of the bill are waived for the state, it must still meet new goals and obligations worked out between itself and the federal education department.  In the meantime, Springfield students will need to make the most of the few days they may receive from Commissioner Chester.

Curran, after Friday's meeting, said he understood the commissioner's desire to keep the state's administration of MCAS "uniform."  When asked if the legislation could be fast tracked, he doubted the possibility.  "Everybody has home rule legislation  they want to see passed," he explained noting that another legislator from elsewhere in the state could object to Springfield's bill leapfrogging other communities' home rule bills.  Walsh, the committee chairwoman, noted that some accommodation must be reached noting that one quarter of the state's poorest performing schools were in Springfield.  "There's a lot at stake," she said.

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