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Education board undermining charter school formula

A well-intentioned effort to measure student achievement in Massachusetts has jeopardized the expansion of charter schools in low-income districts. Education commissioner Mitchell Chester and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education need to recognize this mistake and ensure that charter schools continue to expand in the cities and towns with the greatest need for educational alternatives.

Four years ago, state lawmakers raised the cap on the number of public charter school seats in the lowest-performing 10 percent of school districts. But a recent vote of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education changed the formula for determining the lowest-performing districts. The original formula had been based solely on student MCAS scores. The new measurement includes biennial growth rates on MCAS assessment tests. As a result, schools with significant numbers of low-income students, such as Brockton, Haverhill, and Worcester, would rise from the bottom tier while better-off districts, such as Dennis-Yarmouth and Easthampton, would replace them.

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Urban school districts deserve praise for improving test scores. But such efforts are often measured from very low starting points. High growth is not the same as superlative achievement in the world of student assessments. More important, the Legislature in 2010 clearly intended the additional charter schools to serve the most needy students, to help erase the achievement gap between low-income and upper-income school districts.

In altering the formula, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education acknowledged something important: that not all struggling students live in big urban districts. There are many suburban students in high-achieving school districts who are academically adrift. And there are entire school districts that hover only slightly above the lowest-performing 10 percent category. Yet if the board thinks such students and districts would benefit from access to more charter schools, then it should advocate for them — but avoid undermining the thousands of low-income urban students who are languishing on charter school waiting lists.

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