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  • Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education 75 Pleasant Street, Malden, Massachusetts 02148-5023 Telephone: (781) 338-3000

    TTY: N.E.T. Relay 1-800-439-2370

    Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D. Commissioner

    To: Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

    From: Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner

    Date: Oct. 9, 2014

    Subj: Update on ESEA Flexibility Waiver

    I am pleased to report that the U.S. Department of Education (ED) has granted our request for an

    extension of our Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) flexibility waiver through the

    2014-15 school year. This will allow us to continue to use the accountability system and other

    tools we have developed over the past few years to support school and district improvement


    At the same time, ED did not approve our request to waive the ESEA requirement for a single

    statewide student assessment for 2014-15 and will require us to submit a plan demonstrating that

    we will be in compliance no later than 2015-16. This schedule is consistent with our plans for a

    two-year "test drive" of the PARCC assessment.

    This memorandum provides additional information on both of these decisions. A copy of the

    approval letter from Deborah Delisle, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education

    at ED, is attached.

    The ESEA was first enacted by Congress in 1965, and it is the major source of federal funding

    for the nations K-12 school systems. It has been reauthorized and amended on a number of

    occasions; the most recent reauthorization, in 2001, was nicknamed No Child Left Behind

    (NCLB). The NCLB amendments instituted extensive requirements for annual student

    assessments, and they required every school to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) toward a

    goal of 100 percent student proficiency by the 2013-14 school year. As the years went by, more

    and more schools fell behind AYPs rigid metric. By 2013, approximately 80 percent of

    Massachusetts public schools and 90 percent of our school districts were labeled as failing under

    AYP. There was a growing consensus, both locally and nationally, that AYP had lost its

    credibility and needed to be replaced, but the political gridlock in Washington undermined

    bipartisan efforts to enact a new reauthorization of ESEA.

  • To address this problem, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan offered states the opportunity

    to apply for an administrative waiver of AYP and certain other NCLB provisions. Massachusetts

    applied for and received a waiver extending through the 2013-14 school year. Under this waiver,

    we have been permitted to substitute our state accountability system for NCLBs AYP

    measurements. Our state system, which incorporates the five levels of school designations that

    we discussed at last months special Board meeting, was developed beginning in 2008 and was

    codified in 2010 through the Legislatures enactment of the Achievement Gap act. It is a more

    nuanced system than AYP, with realistic targets and multiple measures of performance. The

    waiver provided us the opportunity to implement a unitary accountability system that maintains

    our state's high standards and expectations and meets both federal and state requirements.

    In the fall of 2013, ED invited states with approved ESEA waivers to request an extension. In

    preparing for our extension request, we consulted with Massachusetts educators and other

    stakeholders to review our accountability and assistance system and identify potential areas for

    improvement. There was broad support in the field for extending the waiver. The Board

    discussed the proposed waiver extension at its April 2014 meeting. Our request was submitted to

    ED in July, and Assistant Secretary Delisles letter indicates that it has now been approved.

    The cautionary note in Assistant Secretary Delisles letter concerns the ESEA requirement that

    states use a single assessment to measure student achievement. Giving districts the choice of

    PARCC or MCAS this spring runs afoul of this requirement. In November 2013, I recommended

    and the Board approved the two-year test drive of the new PARCC assessment to determine if

    it is worthy of adoption to replace MCAS as the Massachusetts statewide student assessment.

    Last spring was the first year of the test drive, consisting of field tests in a broad sample of

    schools and classrooms. This coming spring, in the second year of the test drive, we will give

    PARCC in a fully operational mode, and districts have been given the choice of whether to

    administer MCAS or PARCC. This will lead to a decision by the Board in the fall of 2015 on

    whether PARCC will replace MCAS.

    The other states in the PARCC consortium will be implementing the new assessment in all of

    their schools this coming spring. As you know, Massachusetts is playing a major role in the

    development of PARCC. I chair the consortium's governing board, and our student assessment

    staff, led by Associate Commissioner Liz Davis, is actively involved on a day-to-day basis with

    the test's development. Even so, we have very good reasons for taking a more cautious and

    measured approach to a decision on PARCC than our sister states:

    MCAS is a highly regarded, high quality test that has served us well for nearly two

    decades. Although we know that we need to raise the bar even further if we are to

    maintain our leadership in K-12 education, we made the commitment that our next

    generation state assessment will be as good as or better than MCAS.

    Last spring's field tests, while valuable, do not give us all the information we would need

    to make a final decision this fall on adopting PARCC. Next spring's planned side-by-side

  • testing will give us a wealth of comparative data, and will allow more educators and

    students to experience and provide feedback on PARCC.

    The debate over new curriculum standards and assessments based on the Common Core

    State Standards has become politicized in many states. If we want to avoid that happening

    here, we need to demonstrate that we will be thoughtful and deliberate, as we have always

    been, in making these important decisions.

    Local school officials have given us a lot of feedback about the challenges of

    implementing a wide range of new initiatives in recent years. Giving districts a choice of

    assessments in spring 2015 will provide a welcome respite for those districts that are

    concerned they may lack the capacity to move to a new state assessment this year.

    We have been forthcoming with ED staff over the past 15 months about our two-year test drive

    plan. Secretary Duncan has said that he fully understands and empathizes with the reasons for our

    transition plan, but he is unable to offer us a waiver option that was not available to other states.

    Accordingly, Assistant Secretary Delisle's letter requires us to demonstrate that we are prepared

    to make a final decision on our statewide testing program for 2015-16 and beyond. As I noted

    above, the Board is scheduled to take that vote in the fall of 2015, after we have carefully

    considered the results of the MCAS-PARCC comparison review. The ED directive reinforces the

    importance of keeping to that schedule.

    At the same time, I do not believe that ED's finding of non-compliance for 2014-15 is sufficient

    reason for us to accelerate our decision-making timetable. I recommended, and the Board

    adopted, the two-year transition plan because it is in the best interests of our students and

    teachers. 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.

    We will have an opportunity to discuss these issues in greater detail at the upcoming Board

    meeting on October 21. In the meantime, please let me know if you have any questions.



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