Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester Dead at 65

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced on Tuesday that Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester passed away on Monday night after a fight with cancer. He was 65.

Chester began his career as an elementary school teacher in Connecticut and later served as a middle school assistant principal and district curriculum coordinator. From there he moved to the Connecticut State Department of Education, where he oversaw curriculum and instructional programs. In 1997, he was named the executive director for accountability and assessment for Philadelphia. In 2001, he moved to Ohio, where he served as the senior associate superintendent for policy and accountability for the Ohio Department of Education. He was named Massachusetts’ education commissioner in 2008.

Chester was a proponent of the Common Core State Standards. He also chaired the PARCC Board of Governors until the state pulled back to create a PARCC-MCAS hybrid assessment.

“On behalf of the entire administration, Lieutenant Governor Polito and I extend our deepest condolences to Commissioner Chester’s family, friends and colleagues at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education during this difficult time,” Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker said. “Commissioner Chester was a dedicated educator and accomplished public servant. His leadership improved the lives of thousands of the Commonwealth’s students and helped make our public school system a national leader. He will be terribly missed by all.”

“Mitchell Chester was proud of the Commonwealth’s strong education system and dedicated to spreading that strength to all students, whether they lived in Lawrence or the Berkshires,” Education Secretary James Peyser stated. “He will be sorely missed.”

“Mitchell brought his tremendous intellect, a listening ear, and his concern for students to the work of the Board and the Department,” Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Chair Paul Sagan stated. “The strength and dedication of his team reflects his strength and passion as a leader, and his passing is a loss for Massachusetts.”

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education named Deputy Commissioner Jeff Wulfson acting commissioner.

Using Two Assessments Could Cost Massachusetts Some Title 1 Funding


Those who advocated for the Every Student Succeeds Act kept telling us that it was going to restore state and local control. Here is another example that talking point is a complete sham.

When Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester announced that the state would utilize a MCAS-PARCC hybrid assessment starting in the spring of 2017 he also stated schools could use either MCAS or PARCC this coming Spring.  Playing the Grinch on Christmas week the U.S. Department of Education warned that the Bay State could end up losing some federal funding as a result.

The Boston Globe reports:

The US Department of Education has warned Massachusetts that it could lose a modest amount of federal funding because the state plans to administer two standardized tests this spring as it develops a new assessment.

The warning was issued Monday in a letter from a DOE administrator to Mitchell D. Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education. It pointed out that states are required to administer a single test to all students by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, recently reauthorized by Congress as the Every Student Succeeds Act….

….Massachusetts obtained a federal waiver on the single-test requirement in 2011 to try out the PARCC — the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test — which was under consideration as a replacement for the state’s longstanding MCAS test.

Both that waiver and a subsequent extension have now expired, according to the letter to Chester from Ann Whalen, a top federal education official.

The state’s violation of the act triggered Whalen to declare Massachusetts “high risk,” putting in jeopardy some of the federal funding the state receives under Title I, which helps fund schools with high percentages of children from low-income families.

Whalen’s letter did not specify how much federal money might be withheld if Massachusetts fails to switch to a single test by next spring.

This is exactly why the U.S. Department of Education should not be entrusted to approve state accountability plans. Educrats have been way too much latitude.

USDED: No Student Assessment Opt-Outs Allowed


John King will be setting the “guardrails” when Arne Duncan leaves.

The U.S. Department of Education has spoken on student opt-outs for the 2016 statewide assessments.

Ann Whalen, the acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, wrote a letter to state school chiefs reminding them of “key assessment requirements” for the statewide assessments to be taken in Spring 2016.  This school year the states are still under the requirements of No Child Left Behind.  Whalen notes however, “similar requirements are included in the recently signed reauthorization of the ESEA, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).”

She gets very clear on a student’s ability to opt-out.

Section 1111(b)(3)1 of the ESEA requires each State educational agency (SEA) that receives funds under Title I, Part A of the ESEA to implement in each local educational agency (LEA) in the State a set of high-quality academic assessments that includes, at a minimum, assessments in mathematics and reading/language arts administered in each of grades 3 through 8 and not less than once during grades 10 through 12; and in science not less than once during grades 3 through 5, grades 6 through 9, and grades 10 through 12. Furthermore, ESEA sections 1111(b)(3)(C)(i) and (ix)(I) require State assessments to “be the same academic assessments used to measure the achievement of all children” and “provide for the participation in such assessments of all students” (emphasis added). These requirements do not allow students to be excluded from statewide assessments. Rather, they set out the legal rule that all students in the tested grades must be assessed. (Emphasis added)

So perhaps Congress should have kept opt-out language in ESSA after all.  A lot will be left up to interpretation by the U.S. Department of Education.

John King, who will replace Arne Duncan as U.S. Secretary of Education, told Politico that he will set up “guardrails” for the new flexibility states receive under ESSA.

Politico noted in today’s Morning Education that state school chiefs are starting to note a lack of clarity as they – start to read the bill (it’s too bad Congress didn’t do that).

State education chiefs have been combing through the Every Student Succeeds Act and there’s a lot they’d like more clarity on — particularly about the new, pared-back role of the federal government. Some chiefs are excited about the new wiggle room and fewer federal constraints. But others worry that it might allow states to backslide when it comes to holding schools and districts accountable for student performance. Washington Superintendent Randy Dorn said Congress’ move to diminish the education secretary’s power was purely political. And Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said it’s “clearly a reaction” to the last seven years, which include waivers from No Child Left Behind and competitive grant programs like Race to the Top that pushed states to adopt a confluence of reforms, like higher academic standards and more rigorous tests. “The federal role going forward needs to be sorted out,” Chester said. “I think it’s yet to be determined how much leeway states will have … For example, the bill calls for ‘ambitious’ academic standards, so how exactly will the federal government determine whether states are meeting that requirement?”….

Both outgoing Education Secretary Arne Duncan and his successor, John King, have made clear that the department will use its full regulatory powers to ensure states won’t backtrack on the progress they’ve made.

Apparently the feds will be to define what “backtracking” and “progress” looks like.  Even though advocates of ESSA says that states can pass their own opt-out laws to be included in their own state plan it looks that quashing student opt-outs will be one of the guardrails that a newly minted U.S. Secretary of Education John King will throw up for the 2016-2017 school year.

No, Massachusetts Has Not Dropped Common Core

massachusetts-state-flagIt seems like people are confused about what the Massachusetts State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education actually did.  This month Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester recommended that Massachusetts adopt a hybrid PARCC-MCAS assessment.  The Board approved that recommendation.

The assessment will be aligned to the Common Core State Standards.  The standards have not been changed.  They will still be assessed.  They will still drive curriculum.  The test will still include elements of PARCC.

Is this a hit to PARCC?  Absolutely, but let’s not go overboard on what this actually accomplishes. One could say it is a small steps, but these headlines below are confusing.

These folks should know better so that is discouraging. So I want to be clear – Massachusetts has not dropped Common Core. They have not given up on Common Core. They gave up on PARCC (sort of).

Massachusetts Education Commissioner Recommends MCAS-PARCC Hybrid

massachusetts-state-flagMassachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester announced today he recommends the state use a “Next Generation MCAS” that would be first used in spring of 2017 and use items from PARCC and the current MCAS along with items specifically designed for the state assessment.

The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will vote on his recommendation at their next meeting on November 17.

The commissioner’s memo calls for the state to:

  • Award a new MCAS contract to include a next-generation assessment for English language arts and math using both PARCC items and items specific to Massachusetts;
  • Commit to computer-based state assessments with the goal of implementing this statewide by spring 2019;
  • Remain a member of the PARCC consortium in order to have access to high-quality assessment development while sharing costs with other states and to be able to compare next-generation MCAS results with those of other states’ assessments; and
  • Convene groups of K-12 teachers, higher education faculty and assessment experts to advise ESE on the content, length and scheduling of statewide tests; testing policies for students with disabilities and for English language learners; the requirements for the high school competency determination (currently the 10th grade MCAS); and the timeline for reinstating a history and social science test.

It should be noted that Mitchell Chester serves as chair on the governing board of PARCC so to say he has conflict of interest here would be an understatement.  The fact that he’s willing to forgo the adoption of the entire PARCC assessment shows the amount of pressure the grassroots is placing upon Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s administration.

The Pioneer Institute which is located in Massachusetts responded to the news:

We applaud the Baker administration for proposing that Massachusetts retain its academic independence and testing autonomy, but the Commonwealth should reject any further participation in the PARCC consortium.

MCAS has served Massachusetts very well for nearly two decades. The test and the pre-Common Core standards were the key to Massachusetts’ leadership position that was forged by the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act and demonstrated by historic gains on national and international tests.

As its name suggests, “Next-Generation MCAS” should largely be based on the pre-2011 MCAS and, where appropriate, include questions and modes from other models such as PARCC. This will provide continuity and foster accountability by allowing performance to be measured over time.

Next-Generation MCAS should also use questions developed by Massachusetts educators and academics, and reinstate the practice of releasing all or nearly all of the questions after tests are administered to help classroom teachers shape instruction.

As Next-Generation MCAS is being developed, it is imperative that both the 10th-grade MCAS and the state English and math standards be restored to their pre-Common Core academic quality. The previous standards and MCAS made Massachusetts the envy of the country and the only state that truly is internationally competitive.

The five-year Common Core-PARCC detour needs to be abandoned. It has damaged the standing of the Commonwealth’s students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and undermined the academic quality needed to perpetuate the ideals of our democracy, deliver true equity to underserved students, and compete in the global economy.

Study: MCAS Less Expensive, More Rigorous and Provides Better Information than PARCC

massachusetts-state-flagIn the wake of an apparent shift by Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester making it increasingly likely that Massachusetts will update MCAS rather than adopt English and math assessments developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a new study published by Pioneer Institute concludes that revising and updating MCAS would result in lower costs and more rigorous assessments that would provide better information about student performance.

“The research leads us to support keeping MCAS and making it an even better test,” said Jim Stergios, Pioneer’s executive director. “We are all for an MCAS 2.0, but that means pre-2011 MCAS should be the starting point for new assessments and test items, not PARCC.”

“How PARCC’s False Rigor Stunts the Academic Growth of all Students” compares PARCC, which is based on Common Core’s K-12 English and math standards, to pre-Common Core MCAS reading and writing tests. Among its many findings, the study demonstrates that PARCC fails to meet the accountability provisions set forth in the state’s Memorandum of Understanding with the U.S. Department of Education in order to qualify for Race to the Top funding in 2010.

The pre-Common Core MCAS tests were chosen in part because MCAS is now based on Common Core standards, not the state’s pre-2011 standards. Pre-Common Core MCAS tests were also chosen because of the dumbing down of 10th grade MCAS tests. For years, MCAS results mirrored state performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). In 2013, that remained true for 4th and 8th grade MCAS tests. But that year, while 80 percent of students scored “advanced” or “proficient” on MCAS 10th grade math and 91 percent on the English test, the numbers were just 34 percent in math and 43 percent in English on the corresponding high school NAEP tests.

What was at the very least a failure by the state to maintain the academic rigor of 10th grade MCAS tests is one reason why the authors recommend that MCAS 2.0 be developed by an entity independent of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

When Chester, who also chairs PARCC’s governing board, announced his apparent shift, he cited the importance of maintaining state control over student assessments. Pioneer Institute has argued against tying the Commonwealth to the faltering PARCC consortium, which once boasted 26 member states but today includes just seven or eight largely low performers. With the number of potential test-takers in these states falling from 30 million to under five million, PARCC’s viability and ability to maintain its current pricing are in question.

The inability of students in states like New Mexico to pass tests at the level of their Massachusetts counterparts would, over time, create pressure to reduce the tests’ rigor.

The authors also dispute claims that PARCC could simultaneously determine whether students are academically eligible for a high school diploma and ensure college readiness. High school is radically different than college, and the academic demands of various post-secondary programs vary dramatically. Our international competitors use different tests for high school graduation and entrance to post-secondary education.

Despite claims that PARCC would do a better job ensuring that students are “college- and career-ready,” a recent study found that PARCC assessments were no better at predicting college readiness than MCAS – even though grade 10 MCAS tests have been dumbed down.

PARCC would also force schools to devote many more hours to testing, leaving less time for classroom instruction. By the time he or she graduated from high school, the average student would spend almost three times as many hours taking PARCC tests than they would MCAS assessments.


Supporters also claim PARCC does a better job of testing “higher-order thinking.” In fact, its new types of test items are not research-based and not very good. They are often difficult to navigate and what passes for testing higher-order thinking are simply multi-step problems.

At the root of PARCC’s weaknesses are the Common Core standards to which they are tied. The authors call on the Commonwealth to phase out Common Core and PARCC, and to base a revised MCAS on Massachusetts’ pre-Common Core curriculum frameworks, updated by pertinent new research.

“How PARCC’s False Rigor Stunts the Academic Growth of all Students” was written by Mark McQuillan, Richard P. Phelps and Sandra Stotsky. McQuillan is former dean of the School of Education at Southern New Hampshire University and commissioner of education for the state of Connecticut. Prior to that, he was a deputy commissioner of education and a school superintendent in Massachusetts.

Richard P. Phelps is the author of four books on testing and founder of the Nonpartisan Education Review (

Sandra Stotsky is professor emerita at the University of Arkansas where she held the 21st Century Chair in Teacher Quality. Previously she was senior associate commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and a member of the Common Core Validation Committee.

You can read the study below.

Boston Herald Says No to PARCC

massachusetts-state-flagThe Boston Herald in today’s editorial calls on the state of Massachusetts to keep the MCAS in lieu of adopting PARCC.

Their editorial board writes:

About two-thirds of Ohio students who took the new Common Core tests were rated by their state as “proficient” in English and math while about one-third in Illinois and one-half in Massachusetts were rated that way, according to The New York Times.

Yet all three groups of students got the same actual numerical scores on the tests from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, part of the Common Core effort. If a “common” endeavor allows such varying descriptions of the exact same results, what good is it?

No further illustration of the undesirability of the Common Core should be needed. It ought to be rebuked next month when the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education decides whether to junk the familiar (and sound) MCAS tests in favor of the opaque PARCC process (about half of Massachusetts cities and towns already have adopted PARCC)…

…We have often called attention to the objectionable dumbing-down that the Common Core curriculum would mean here. So far Massachusetts students have maintained their position at the top of state rankings on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (which is given only to a sample of students) but that achievement surely would be in jeopardy if the Common Core gets firmly established. It doesn’t help that Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester has helped develop the PARCC tests.



The PARCC Death Spiral

Photo credit: Bartmoni (CC-By-SA 3.0)

Photo credit: Bartmoni (CC-By-SA 3.0)

PARCC which has been hemorrhaging membership is still holding onto a glimmer of hope that sustainability is their’s to grasp.

The Washington Post reports:

But fewer than half of the states originally part of PARCC — 11 states and the District of Columbia — were still on board when the online tests rolled out this spring. Since then, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Ohio all have dropped out and just seven states and the District plan to give the test in 2015-2016, raising questions about whether the consortium is in danger of completely falling apart.

PARCC spokesman David Connerty-Marin insisted that it is not. “Of course it is sustainable,” he said, pointing to the old New England Common Assessment Program, which functioned for years with just four states and 400,000 students. Though there are fewer states now shouldering the costs of the exams, PARCC has pledged not to raise the price of exams next year, Connerty-Marin said.

And even though PARCC has shrunk, he said, the nation’s testing landscape is still much different than it was in 2014, when each state gave different tests, making it difficult to compare achievement across state lines.

“A few states will come and go, but this is the new normal,” he said.

Ah, gotta love the spin.  Joanna Weiss at the Boston Globe doesn’t sound so confident writing PARCC looks like it is in “a death spiral.”

PARCC is in what looks like a death spiral: Once adopted by 26 states, it’s now used by fewer than ten. Arkansas dropped it on Thursday. Massachusetts’ Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will vote this fall on whether to adopt it for good. (Chester chairs the consortium that oversees PARCC, but he doesn’t get a Massachusetts vote.)

Chester says he’s been surprised at the depth of the PARCC backlash. But much of it could have been anticipated. The problems began with the roll-out of the Common Core standards themselves, which was oddly reminiscent of the troubled Boston 2024 Olympic bid process: planning that largely took place outside of public view, creating distrust and raising questions about how much influence outside groups, companies, and philanthropists should have over local policy.

Spin aside, I don’t know how PARCC survives if another state or two leaves.  We’ll place it on death watch.

Massachusetts Ed Commissioner Should Recuse Himself from PARCC Decision

massachusetts-state-flag(Boston, MA) Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester, who later this year will make a recommendation to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (the board) about whether to replace MCAS tests with those developed by the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), chairs PARCC’s governing board.

Pioneer Institute calls on Chester to recuse himself from the MCAS/PARCC decision process for the following reasons:

1. As commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (the department), Chester serves as secretary to the board of education and oversees the state agency and hearing process for choosing between MCAS and PARCC. The agency he heads gathers the information on which the policy decision will be made and conducts the internal evaluation.  Commissioner Chester ultimately makes a recommendation to the board about which test to choose.

This is clearly a conflict of interest.  Taking this matter out of the context of education makes the point perhaps more evident.  Imagine that the general manager of the MBTA also chaired the board of Keolis or Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad when the two companies were competing for the $2.6 billion contract to operate the T’s commuter rail system.  Such a conflict of interest would never have been tolerated, yet this is precisely the situation given the commissioner’s leadership role at the PARCC.

2. In its role managing a series of five statewide public hearings that are currently underway on whether the board should officially adopt PARCC and abandon MCAS, the department chooses who to invite to deliver expert testimony.  The invited experts speak first and are allowed more time than members of the general public. Thus far, in the first four hearings, a strong majority of the invited experts have been supporters of PARCC.

3. Commissioner Chester has also formed a team of Massachusetts/PARCC Educator Leader Fellows within the department. According to a memo Chester sent to district and charter school leaders, the PARCC fellows, who receive a stipend, should be “excited about the content of the Common Core State Standards” and “already engaged in leadership work around them.” The department has no MCAS fellows.

4. The commissioner’s interactions with local education leaders have led many to believe that the decision to abandon MCAS has already been made.  Brookline Superintendent and Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents President William Lupini, in a 2014 letter to the town’s school committee, flatly stated that “MCAS will be phased out in favor of either PARCC or another new ‘next generation’ assessment after the 2015 test administration.”  (No other “next generation” test or MCAS 2.0 is under development or consideration.)

5. Given that the PARCC consortium originally included 26 participating states and Washington, DC, but now includes only seven and DC, there is enormous pressure on the commissioner, as the chairman of PARCC, to ensure that the testing consortium does not lose any more states.  This is especially so after a spring during which numerous states declined further participation in PARCC; just last week one of the few large states remaining in the consortium (Ohio) left the consortium.

The financial viability of PARCC is in great part a function of the number of students it services.  When PARCC included 26 states and DC, it could plan its pricing strategy on the basis of serving over 25 million (of the over 31 million) public school students enrolled in those jurisdictions.  With the loss of Ohio, PARCC has been reduced to serving just over 5 million.  Additional consortium states, most immediately Arkansas, are actively working toward similar departures.  Massachusetts’ almost one million public school students are of considerable concern to the consortium’s financial viability, therefore creating an untenable ethical position for the Commissioner.

Sadly, the larger process of choosing between Massachusetts’ previous academic standards and Common Core, which led to the current MCAS/PARCC issue, is already one that has been rife with at least the appearance of conflict of interest.  The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to develop and then to market Common Core.  Oddly, Commissioner Chester relied on three studies conducted by Gates-funded entities, directly or indirectly, to inform his 2010 recommendation that the board of education adopt Common Core.  A 2010 WCVB-TV 5 investigation found that Chester and other department personnel accepted $15,000 in luxury travel and accommodations from Common Core supporters prior to the board’s adoption of the Common Core.

As a gubernatorial candidate in 2010, Governor Baker opposed Common Core and PARCC.  In March of this year, he criticized the MCAS/PARCC process and earlier procedures that resulted in the adoption of Common Core, telling the State House News Service, “I think it’s an embarrassment that a state that spent two years giving educators, families, parents, administrators and others an opportunity to comment and engage around the assessment system that eventually became MCAS basically gave nobody a voice or an opportunity to engage in a discussion at all before we went ahead and executed on Common Core and PARCC.”

Such practices need to end, and the public’s trust in the department’s ability to manage a publicly impartial, transparent and accountable process needs to be restored. The first step is for Commissioner Chester, who chairs PARCC’s governing board, to recuse himself from the upcoming policy decision about whether to replace MCAS with the PARCC test.

In cases where there are several apparent conflicts of interest, recusals are an appropriate administrative response meant to uphold the public trust.

Pioneer Institute is an independent, non-partisan, privately funded research organization that seeks to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts through civic discourse and intellectually rigorous, data-driven public policy solutions based on free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government.


Peabody School Committee Calls Mitchell Chester’s Role with PARCC a Conflict of Interest

Dave McGeney

Dave McGeney

The Peabody School Committee member Dave McGeney called into question Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester’s role on the PARCC governing board.  Chester is in his third year as national chairman for the board.  The committee voted unanimously on Tuesday to send the following correspondencce to Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Chester, Attorney General Martha Coakley, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and the State Ethics Commission and ask that they render an opinion.

We believe the decision of whether to abandon MCAS, a test which is a fundamental element of the 1993 Ed Reform Act that has led to the unprecedented improvement in student achievement in Massachusetts, in favor of PARCC, a test which may hold promise but is, as yet, unproven and theoretical, is one of critical importance.

We believe also that this monumental decision demands objectivity, fairness and the impartial scrutiny of empirical data to determine the outcome.

We believe that Mitchell Chester, by virtue of his role as National Chair of the PARCC Governing Board and other actions represents a serious breach of trust, which is at odds with his primary duties and responsibilities, and at the very least gives the impression of bias towards PARCC and compromises the decision making process.

Therefore, the Peabody School Committee, by a unanimous vote, requests that you render an opinion on this matter.

Here is video of the school committee discussion.  It is apparent to me that we need more local school board members like McGeney.