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Uncertainties Over Funding Slow Start Of New Assessment System in Boston

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Uncertainty about funding sources for an ambitious new assessment system planned for the Boston schools has slowed its implementation and contributed to friction between educators and the business community.

Some business leaders involved in the Boston Compact, the city's nationally regarded agreement between the school system and the private sector, say the money should come from public sources through streamlining the district's central office and increasing its efficiency.

But district officials and other educators argue that the funding should be the private sector's responsibility. They point out that the assessment plan was drawn up to satisfy the business community's demand for stricter measurement of school performance, contained in the "Boston Compact II" and the Boston Teachers Union's latest contract, both signed last year. (See Education Week, May 31, 1989.)

Last month, educators and business leaders on the compact's measurement committee presented to other compact officials cost estimates and a timetable for implementation of the school-evaluation system unveiled last summer.

The proposal would cost between $60,000 and $80,000 the first year for the elements the school district would be responsible for, plus $250,000 for the development of a performance-based-assessment pilot program by4researchers at Boston College.

The district's two responsibilities would be an annual performance profile for each of its 116 schools and the training of administrators in the new assessment techniques, which aim to go beyond standardized testing to a more comprehensive look at students' abilities.

Implementation was tentatively set to begin this month, but with no funding, work has been limted to developing a format for the school profiles, Maryellen Donahue, director of the district's office of research and development, said last week.

"We're kind of limping along, trying to do something," she said.

The Boston Private Industry Council will discuss the funding issue as early as this month, but observers generally expressed pessimism about the propects for substantial support.

Finding funds within the existing school budget may be next to impossible, those observers said, given a series of cuts that has rocked the district following a severe economic downturn in the state.

The office of research and development is down to two staff members not tied up with other projects required by law, Ms. Donahue said.

"I wouldn't put it all in the lap of the compact, but it is true that this was [their] push," she said. "They could have chosen myriad other avenues [toward reform], and it seems reasonable that they have some kind of responsibility."

But educators acknowledged that business has hit tough times, too. And they conceded that until the Boston schools resolve some of their current governance and management troubles, they will not look like a solid investment.

Disaffection with the district's leadership was dramatized last week, when the city council voted to abolish the Boston School Committee and place the school system under the authority of the mayor. (See story, page 1.)

"If the school governance is unable to deal with its problems, it puts real [reform] progress into jeopardy," said Ferdinand Colloredo-Mansfield, a past chairman of the private-industry council's board of directors who two years ago helped lead the drive for tougher school-performance standards and other reforms.

"There's always a risk that the business community will abandon the public schools," he warned.

To break the deadlock, some compact members have approached private foundations outside the state for money to help finance the reforms, according to William Spring, vice president for district-community affairs at Boston's Federal Reserve Bank and co-chairman of the compact committee that drafted the evaluation proposals.

Also, efforts are being made to forge an alliance of urban districts undertaking assessment reform that could get a large pilot-project grant from a national foundation.

"I kind of think we're going to make it," said Robert Pearlman, director of research for the teachers' union.

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