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New school ratings bring criticism from charter backers

Change is called limit on growth; Low-income areas may be affected

MALDEN — Charter school advocates are protesting a change in how the state rates school district performance that is expected to restrict charter school growth in Brockton, Worcester, Somerville, and several other cities, while opening the door for more such schools in more affluent communities.

The change, charter school advocates say, goes against the spirit of a four-year-old state law that aims to double charter-school enrollment in the lowest-performing districts, which tend to have the greatest concentration of high-needs students, such as those from low-income households.

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“It’s a remarkable reallocation of resources from low-income families, primarily those of color in urban districts, to families in school districts that are primarily serving middle-class white students,” Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, said in an interview Tuesday.

Under the change, which the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved last month, state officials no longer rely only on a rank order of MCAS scores to determine the lowest-performing school districts that would be eligible for a doubling of charter-school enrollment.

Instead, the new system gives districts credit for how much they are boosting test scores, in recognition that some districts teach students with far more academic challenges than others.

But the additional measure is dramatically shifting which districts are rated in the bottom 10 percent in the state, a standing that opens those districts up for additional charter schools. For instance, cities like Brockton, Worcester, and Somerville are being replaced by the likes of Dennis-Yarmouth and Easthampton, where less than half the students are from low-
income households.

Some state board members, including Education Secretary Matthew Malone, defended the change at their monthly meeting Tuesday, after hearing opposition from the charter school association during public comments. They noted that the change brings the methodology in line with how the state determines which districts and schools are underperforming and potentially eligible for receivership.

Malone, a former Brockton schools superintendent, said the state has a duty to recognize the hard work of districts that are boosting achievement at fast rates, saying, “It’s insulting not to do so.”

That immediately elicited praise from a Worcester School Committee member, Tracy O’Connell Novick, who sat in the audience and tweeted: “Cheers from Worcester on that, Mr. Secretary!”

Charter-school advocates are waging their opposition now because they said they were unaware of the change when the board voted last month. The issue came to their attention in recent weeks because the board was scheduled to vote Tuesday on another proposal related to the change that would have given the growth in MCAS scores even greater weight and could have removed even more cities from the lowest-performing districts.

A dozen state legislators supported that proposal, arguing in a letter that test score growth “reflects school quality better than other measures.”

Under the proposed change, growth in MCAS scores would have made up 30 percent of the calculation, instead of 20 percent, and could have bumped Fitchburg and Lowell off the list of lowest-performing districts and could have added Marlborough and Palmer.

State education officials also ran numbers for another calculation that would have increased the weight of growth even higher, to 40 percent, which could have lifted Boston out of the lowest-performing districts, according to a spreadsheet distributed at the state board meeting.

But Mitchell Chester, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, removed the proposal from consideration Monday night, under mounting opposition from charter school advocates. He addressed the issue again Tuesday, saying more time is needed to examine the change. “Folks have strong feelings about whether I’m reversing course or backing off,” Chester told the board. “I don’t see it as reversing. . . . I feel I’m being prudent.”

Chester said he expects to bring back a revised proposal in the next month or two, but it remains unclear what that proposal would be. “The discussions on the charter school calculations are still open because the department and board are still willing to listen to and consider other ideas and information,” Jacqueline Reis, a department spokeswoman, said in an e-mail after the meeting.

Lobbying for changes is expected to intensify. The Boston Teachers Union in its weekly newsletter Tuesday urged members to send letters to state board members supporting the use of test-score growth.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.
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