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'Ambitious and attainable': Mass. school officials defend new school accountability plan

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in Malden. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in Malden. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

School superintendents from across the state filled the seats at Tuesday's meeting of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to voice support for a proposed new student accountability plan unveiled by the state department of education in a special meeting earlier this month.

The significant turnout by school leadership came after the department's proposed accountability goals received stiff pushback from BESE members at a Jan. 3 special meeting.

The plan, called "A Path to Recovery," would give some school districts additional time to return to 2019 levels of student achievement on the state standardized test, known as the MCAS. School districts with the biggest declines in scores since the pandemic would get up to four years. Those least affected would have up to a year.

Several board members at the Jan. 3 meeting questioned whether the plan was rigorous enough to help narrow the achievement gap between students.

The board resumed discussion of the issue on Tuesday — with school leaders out in full force.

In all, five superintendents from across the state and one charter public school leader offered official comments at Tuesday's meeting to endorse the plan.

Thabiti Brown, the head of school at the Codman Academy Charter Public School, was one of them.

"Allowing for groups that experienced the largest declines to have the longest time for recovery will increase opportunities for learning for students who were hardest hit by the pandemic," he said.

Stephen Zrike, the superintendent of Salem Public Schools, also testified in support. Before his current post, Zrike served as a state receiver in Holyoke and principal at the William Blackstone Elementary School, a so-called "turnaround school" in Boston. He says while he still fully supports rigorous accountability systems, state education officials must consider the realities communities are facing after the significant disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic.

"English learners have experienced interrupted learning at a level we have never seen before," Zrike said, explaining why his district experienced significant achievement losses last year. "Given this reality we simply cannot use the scores from 2019 and disregard the larger contextual inequities that exist for our multilingual learners."

At the Jan. 3 special board meeting, some members said four years was too long for schools to catch students up to pre-pandemic levels. Others had concerns over the plan's equity implications and whether it was fair to hold some students to a different standard than others.

Some board members, as well as those from the state's business community, said they also worried that the proposed accountability goals could slow school progress required under the Student Opportunity Act of 2019, which has an explicit goal of closing the state's achievement gap by providing funding to school districts with more low-income students and English language learners.

Tension from that meeting's criticism was felt in many of the superintendents' comments.

"What is concerning to me is that the target-setting shared on Jan. 3 was deemed as not being aggressive enough," said Jason DeFalco, the superintendent of Blackstone Millville Public Schools. He pushed for "ambitious but attainable" goals from the state.

"The last thing that school districts need to manage right now are goals that are being set for them that cannot be managed in a year's time," said DeFalco.

Rob Curtin, DESE's associate commissioner of education, told board members his team made one adjustment to the plan based on earlier reservations: to raise the 2023 achievement expectations to more rigorous levels for 100% of school districts rather than 95% of them.

Other than that adjustment, the department stood firm on the rest of its framework.

"If we set overly ambitious targets that we do not believe are attainable — and then tell the public that their schools are not making progress, when in reality they made a good deal of progress — we don't believe that serves the public well," said Curtin.

Board member Darlene Lombos, of Boston, was not present at the Jan. 3rd meeting, but said she backed the department's proposal.

"I fully support you," she said to Curtin. "I want to commend and applaud your team."

Other members, like Matt Hills, of Newton, highlighted the value of the "healthy tension" the discussion created between the department of education and the board.

"This is a healthy dynamic. This is a conversation we should be having," said Hills. “We can have an extraordinarily high amount of confidence in you and there can be questioning and pushback and I think that's what happened here."

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education doesn't need a board vote to move forward with its adjusted accountability target plan. The agency doesn't have an official timeline for when the plan will be released to schools but it has indicated in the past it will be finalized soon so that districts can make appropriate plans.

Related:

Carrie Jung Twitter Senior Reporter, Education
Carrie is a senior education reporter.

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