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Manchester request to opt out of Common Core-aligned testing nixed

New Hampshire Union Leader

September 03. 2014 10:37PM

MANCHESTER — The state education commissioner has denied the district’s request to opt out of the Smarter Balanced assessment test.

The decision, relayed in a letter to Superintendent Debra Livingston, is a blow for the school district’s administration and Mayor Ted Gatsas, who has maintained that the commissioner had publicly assured him that a waiver was possible.

Smarter Balanced is to be administered by computer statewide in the spring, replacing the NECAP assessment test.

The understanding that Manchester would not be compelled to take the test contributed to the decision last fall to pursue Manchester Academic Standards, intended as an alternative to Common Core, the education benchmarks that have generated controversy around the country.

Smarter Balanced is aligned with Common Core.

“Both state and federal law compel Manchester to participate in the statewide assessments, and we are not aware of the U.S. Department of Education providing a waiver to any state or individual district in the country to opt out of a formal assessment,” Education Commissioner Virginia Barry wrote in the letter.

Gatsas expressed dismay on Wednesday over Barry’s decision.

“We’re going to go forward and continue to work for a waiver,” he said. “I think it’s sad the DOE doesn’t understand us and doesn’t want to work with us. Maybe the state needs to look at Common Core again and withdraw like other states.”

Gatsas said Barry’s stance went against assurances she made at a public forum in October 2013 in Bedford that was well-attended by opponents of Common Core. Gatsas said Barry told the audience that she would help any district in getting a waiver from the Smarter Balanced test.

A New Hampshire Union Leader article on the meeting does not quote Barry saying this, but does state that Barry said New Hampshire could have the option to leave the Smarter Balanced test if it chooses and go with a combination of college entrance exams.

A transcript or recording of the meeting was not available on Wednesday.

Gatsas has previously fought standardized testing mandates for the district that don’t take into account some of the unique challenges it faces, in particular its large population of English-learning students.

“Standardized tests haven’t proven anything,” he said. “I don’t know what it’s going to prove to rank us against other districts. That’s why New Hampshire is all about local control.”

Ward 8 school board member Erika Connors, the chairman of the Curriculum and Instruction Committee, said she was “not surprised” by the commissioner’s decision not to grant a waiver for the test.

“I think in the last month or so, she’s made it pretty clear that all districts will have to take it,” she said. “But I will be interested in which direction the administration and board will want to go at this point.”

In her letter, Barry stressed that all districts had to participate in a statewide test under an agreement with the federal Department of Education that waived some of the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.

She noted that Manchester was the beneficiary of nearly $17 million in federal funding in the 2012-2013 school year, and that the NCLB waiver gave Manchester greater flexibility it how it uses the federal money.

“With greater flexibility in the use of these funds and the innovation zone work put in place, we are already seeing progress in Manchester toward school improvement that had not been accomplished in previous years,” she wrote.

Superintendent Livingston referred any questions about the commissioner’s decision to Gatsas’ office.

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