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Backlash emerges over state’s proposal to soften school accountability

Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley on Tuesday unveiled a proposal that would ease back into school accountability for student performance after two years of COVID-19 learning disruptions.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

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State education leaders unveiled a proposal on Tuesday to ease into judging schools again on student performance after two years of COVID-19 learning disruptions, generating a heated backlash among educators, parents, and advocates.

Many educators and advocates raised concerns that any scrutiny would inflict further harm on students who still are struggling with pandemic-related trauma, while those tied to the business and philanthropic communities railed against the proposal for being too soft on schools at a time when they need to help students overcome learning loss.

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In introducing the proposal to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Commissioner Jeffrey Riley appeared to be striving for a middle ground between the two sides as he aims to reactivate school accountability this fall. He called the proposal “accountability lite” and noted the state needs to create a new baseline for student achievement after Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System performance declined during the pandemic.

That new baseline would be used to judge schools in the future in a more nuanced way, such as measuring improvement in results.

“This is an opportunity for us as a board to think about, you know, where we want to put our emphasis and focus,” he said. “Obviously, we’re still in the early stages of this discussion.”

The proposal in some ways calls for the minimum of what is being required under federal rules. According to those rules, for instance, the state must provide comprehensive support to the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools that receive federal funds for low-income students and any school whose graduation rates are below 66.7 percent.

State education leaders also would retain the power to declare schools and districts underperforming or chronically underperforming — the latter of which includes state receivership — based largely on a rank ordering of MCAS scores, graduation rates, and other barometers. All students are expected to take the MCAS this spring.

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However, Riley plans to ask the federal government for permission to waive other aspects of the state’s accountability system, which was approved by the federal government about four years ago and implemented for only one year in 2019 before the pandemic derailed the changes.

Most notably, the state is seeking to let schools off the hook for one year on how much progress, or not, they make in meeting state improvement targets or in closing achievement gaps, even though a growing body of research nationwide has indicated that gaps among students of different backgrounds have been widening during the pandemic.

Robert Curtin, the state education department’s chief officer for data, said that change was necessary because only a portion of students last spring took the MCAS following a one-year testing hiatus and the results declined from the last full administration in 2019.

“You could end up in a place where no one meets their targets,” Curtin said.

Advocates tied to the business and philanthropic communities blasted that measure in particular during public comments during the meeting. They noted the state’s school funding law calls for measuring improvement in student performance to ensure districts are getting results for the millions of dollars in new aid. And they also said the hefty infusion of federal stimulus money raises the need for accountability.

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“Setting targets is not just a bureaucratic function; it’s essential to setting the tone for what must be accomplished for students,” said Edward Lambert, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. “We believe benchmarks, even interim ones, are necessary to measure results from the accelerated learning that is supposed to be happening as kids return to classrooms supported by huge allocations of federal dollars. Transparency should be paramount.”

Keri Rodrigues, founder of Massachusetts Parents United, a statewide advocacy organization largely funded by philanthropic dollars, called the proposal “a complete and utter failure to understand the urgency needed to meet this moment” and get student achievement back on track.

“Our children continue to struggle and families are terrified that the ongoing pandemic will have long-term implications on our kids’ ability to access opportunity. Too many superintendents continue to insist that they aren’t sure what to do other than not too much,” said Rodrigues, whose children attend Somerville and Woburn public schools.

The debate intensified throughout the day as more education advocates, parents, and educators with opposing views weighed in after the meeting.

Lisa Guisbond, executive director of Citizens for Public Schools, a nonprofit education group that’s against high-stakes testing, said the proposal, particularly the need to set a new performance baseline, is an admission on the part of state education officials “that they don’t have valid data to use for state and federal accountability.”

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“The feds require that they report data, but it would be more honest to admit that the data, which was never a good measure of school quality, has become even less valid and useful because of the disruptions of the pandemic,” Guisbond said.

She urged the state to entirely rethink school accountability, pointing to recent research by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joshua Angrist and other MIT researchers who found school rating systems developed by states nationwide tend to have a stronger correlation with the racial makeup of students at a school rather than school quality.

But the state proposal appears to be on a fast track for approval. State education leaders plan to file their requests for changes with the US Department of Education next month and the state education board is expected to vote in June on modifying state regulations so the changes can be implemented quickly.

Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, criticized Riley for trying to preserve too much of the old accountability system without any regard for students.

“What our educators are seeing in this very moment because of the pandemic is our students are struggling physically, socially, emotionally, and academically,” she said. “It’s time to get off this hamster wheel of an education system whose every decision — the curriculum, instruction, and scheduling — is driven by MCAS and accountability.”


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him @globevaznis.