Governor Charlie Baker defended a top state educational official on Tuesday after a Massachusetts think tank requested that he recuse himself from a process to decide whether the state should adopt a new standardized testing system.
Mitchell Chester, the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, also serves as chair of the Governing Board for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers, known as PARCC. The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is considering PARCC as the replacement to the current MCAS system according to a report by the Statehouse News Service.
Chester was the commissioner when the BESE voted to adopt a two-year trial period of the PARCC system in November of 2014, drawing criticism from Governor Charlie Baker for not considering public input.
Baker also opposed the adoption of the Common Core, a federally supported system of educational standards that acts as a vital foundation for PARCC, during his unsuccessful bid for Governor in 2010. Chester recommended Common Core and the BESE approved the program in July of 2010.
However, Baker still stood by Chester when he addressed reporters at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference in Boston.
"I was the only person in Massachusetts who testified against the move to Common Core back in 2010. But I don't think my position or his is necessarily relevant here because this is going to be a BESE decision,” Baker said.
Upon Baker's request, the BESE has been holding public hearings and analyzing testing data before before reaching a decision. The Governor doesn't believe Chester's position calls for a recusal from the process, despite his history of support for the program.
"Everybody knows what his background is and what his relation to this is, just as they know what my background is and my relationship to all this is, which is why I wanted the board to be the arbiter of this conversation," Baker said.
The commissioner will submit his recommendation on the matter later this year but does not have a vote on the final decision. The state education department released a statement which said Chester’s dual positions provided him a unique insight but did not unfairly influence his judgment.
Chester has not stated whether he will recommend PARCC to the BESE but has said in the past that the MCAS has significant problems in assessing college readiness.
The Pioneer Institute, the think tank which called for Chester to recuse himself, is a staunch opponent of the Common Core educational standards.
The Baker administration, paradoxically, has borrowed extensively from Pioneer in crafting a wide range of state policies.
Chester used research solely supplied by affiliates of Common Core when he recommended the program to the BESE.
It was later revealed that he and other department personnel accepted $15,000 in luxury travel and accommodations from Common Core supporters prior to the board’s decision to adopt.
The Pioneer Institute argues that the passage of the Common Core standards and adoption of a two-year trial period for PARCC all while Chester was Commissioner indicates a history of bias.
The institute also claimed in a Boston Herald letter to the editor that PARCC’s declining membership exerts a formidable pressure on Chester to recommend its approval to BESE.
Twenty-six states originally pledged to adopt the PARCC system, forming a consortium with over 25 million students slated to participate in testing.
The number is down to seven states and the District of Columbia, covering 5 million students. The institute claims that as a Chairman of PARCC’s Governance Board, Chester has a clear incentive to ensure Massachusetts fully transitions to the testing system.
Brendan Deady is an intern with WGBH News.