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June 26, 2014

Editorial: New school tests need cost estimates

There are a lot of questions to be answered before school districts and the state can expect to effectively implement the new PARCC tests — for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers — across the state.

For starters, school officials need to confirm they have the technology to let students take the exams online — one of the PARCC tests’ selling points over the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, exams that state Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester is clearly looking to phase out.

While it’s fine for the state to grant “hold harmless” assurances to school districts choosing the new PARCC exams over MCAS for the coming school year, it seems grossly unfair not to grant the same recognition to teachers, who would, as of now, still be on the evaluation hook if the students’ scores on the new tests plummeted the first time out — through no fault of the teacher, or the school.

But for all of the unresolved issues, the scariest is the one now being discussed in the Statehouse, where lawmakers are rightfully wondering when they’re going to get an answer to a question that might trump all others: How much is this conversion going to cost?

State Rep. Keiko Orrall, a Republican from Lakeville, filed legislation in April that would pause implementation of the PARCC test and hold back any further funding for it until cost estimates are finalized.

Chester, of course, thinks it would be a “disservice” to students and educators to delay implementation of the PARCC tests — no surprise, considering he also happens to chair the state PARCC board. But the reality is, it would be a far worse disservice to cities, towns, school districts and taxpayers if this program went forward without a clear cost estimate. And if Chester expects us all to push this project forward and trust him on cost, well we can offer an answer to that. We don’t.

Some issues — like the teachers’ evaluation status — could be hammered out over the summer or into next fall, given that the students aren’t tested until next spring. But the issue of cost isn’t one of them.

Until the Department of Education can firm up a cost estimate for these testing changes, lawmakers should indeed put this project on hold.

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