Editor’s Note: Our reporter Doug Page caught up the Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester at a recent Askwith Forum at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge. This is an edited transcript of that interview.
baystateparent: When will you have a decision on MCAS 2.0 test, which I guess is still under development, in terms of the percentage of MCAS and PARCC questions?
Commissioner: Those decisions are being made as we speak. We have committees of teachers who are looking at items who are developing this coming spring’s [March 2017] test.
But when will those decisions be finalized?
Probably by early in 2017
So would you expect before the end of the month of January?
I don’t know for sure whether it would be February. I don’t know.
You said in your memo proposing the hybrid test that PARCC offered a better level of assessment. What was that based on and can you give an example of what made PARCC a better level of assessment?
So the example that I gave of requiring students to read multiple perspectives on a topic and be able to distinguish among those perspectives, that kind of exercise is found on the PARCC-type items that we did not have on our previous MCAS. It elevates the kind of critical thinking and writing skills that we’re asking students to do.
So you’re looking for kids to be able to understand different perspectives?
That’s one aspect. That’s right.
Or compare and contrast them?
How does it work, then, on the math side of this equation? Is PARCC better for math or is old MCAS better for math?
There are aspects of both that are very strong. But PARCC has a much greater emphasis on open-ended problem solving, applying your math skills to novel and real-world situations, than the MCAS did, so it elevates the expectation for what students can do.
How do you answer the question, which has been made here, that it seems like kids from better communities do better on standardized tests vs. kids from lower socioeconomic communities. How do you deal with that?
The question is, can we do better in those places where kids aren’t succeeding right now? Lawrence is a prime example. In Lawrence, we’re now five years into receivership. The graduation rate is way up. The performance of the district is much better today than it was five years ago which, to me, signals that it is possible to do a lot better than we have been doing.
You’ve made some comments both at the Board of Education meetings and again here tonight talking about education as a civil right. What does that mean?
In this world you need to have a strong academic background, a strong education. Fifty years ago, if you got a high school diploma and were willing to work hard, you could make a living wage that would allow you to support a family. Today, those kinds of jobs are farther and farther in between. So young people who are coming of age in this world, this 21st century, need to have outstanding literacy skills, math skills, to have options and opportunities. [They] need to be able to think critically, need to have a good grounding in civics, in history, in the sciences. And so, for me, where we fail kids in providing them with that strong education, we fail their future. And that, to me, is a basic civil rights issue.
When you think about the future of the kids who are going to be graduating from high school in the next 10 years and you think about jobs, too, what’s the advantage of being career- and college-ready, if you stop your education with your high school diploma?
Most careers that don’t require that you start with a college degree, require you to keep getting further education, either skills training while you’re on the job or further education while you’re on the job. So if you leave high school without a strong foundation, your ability to keep up with the demands of careers in the world going forward is going to be reduced.
Manufacturing jobs like the automotive industry are becoming fewer and fewer. I’ve got two kids, and it’s not that they’ll be replaced by some kid in China. They’re going to be replaced by some robot. How do you think about this one?
It’s a very real concern. We’re in an evolving world where technology is going to change the nature of many of the jobs that those of us who are already grown were used to. Robotics is part of that. In our vocational education schools today we have programs for students going into manufacturing, and if you look at what they’re learning in those programs, they’re learning computer programming. They’re learning how to program very sophisticated machining tools. They need to know Cartesian coordinates and planes because that’s the programming behind telling the machine where to cut and how deeply to cut and so forth. So we are re-tooling our education program to make sure our students are ready for those advanced manufacturing jobs in the future. But it’s an evolving world, and all the more reason why young people in Massachusetts need to be ready for that world.
Is there much value, in your own estimation, for a liberal arts degree?
I think it’s important to have a strong, well-rounded education, which is shorthand for a liberal arts education in the K-12 world. That includes strong literacy skills, strong thinking skills, strong math skills, because that opens doors after high school.
Why hasn’t there been much emphasis on foreign languages in the current debate about education?
We haven’t paid as much attention to that as I would have preferred. I think it’s a great gift for someone to be multilingual.