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Critics worry new state proposal will worsen student achievement gaps

Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley during a Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting last summer.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

A new state proposal aimed at tackling student learning losses has triggered criticism among education board members and advocates who worry the plan lacks urgency and ultimately will worsen achievement gaps.

The plan, called a path to recovery, would set up individualized goals for schools and districts to return to their 2019 achievement levels. It would allow districts and schools with the steepest declines in MCAS scores a longer recovery time — up to four years — to hit the targets.

How much recovery time schools and districts get is broken down into four buckets based on how significant their losses were over the last three years. Those schools that did not experience as steep of a decline would have less time, between one and three years, to catch up.


Robert Curtin, the state education department’s chief officer for data, told board members last week that creating the same methodology for all schools and student groups would not work because some learning losses were more severe than others.

“We’re in a situation where we have to develop a process that meets our schools at where they are, and where they are is in a lot of different places,” Curtin said. “They’ve experienced a lot of disparate impacts of the pandemic.”

But board members and advocates tied to business communities raised concerns the plan could stall progress schools must make under the state’s Student Opportunity Act that focus on closing achievement gaps among students with different backgrounds, including students from low-income families, students with disabilities, and English learners.

The act, which became law in 2019, requires Massachusetts school districts to submit plans for shrinking achievement gaps, such as expanding early literacy, career education, advanced courses, and learning time.

Last school year, the state implemented a modified version of its accountability system, which did not include targets for districts or measure their progress in closing achievement gaps. It also delayed giving accountability designations to schools and districts. That proposal also generated backlash, with opponents accusing the state of being too soft on schools. The new proposal to hit 2019 achievement levels also has drawn fire.


“Setting a return to 2019 achievement levels as our goal is an unambitious, backward-looking, ‘return to the status quo’ standard, particularly given that was a moment in time when Massachusetts had the dubious distinction of having some of the biggest achievement gaps in the country,” Ed Lambert, director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, said in a letter to the board and commissioner. ”Such an approach not only sets the bar at a level of continued inequity, it violates the SOA and, once again, defers the work of urgently moving toward equity for all students.”

The letter asks for the education department to withdraw the proposal and replace it with a method that aligns more with state law and sets a higher achievement bar.

Tricia Canavan, a member of the state education board, said at last week’s meeting that the different recovery timelines put students who have fallen furthest behind at an even greater disadvantage.

“We must do better. Going back to 2019 for our kids, which had some of the largest achievement gaps that we’ve seen, can’t be the goal,” Canavan said. “Starting those kids most affected four years behind their peers, to me, sounds like we are just solidifying the impacts of the pandemic on many of our kids.”


To quicken the pace of recovery, she suggested the state tap federal funds to provide more resources, including more robust tutoring, extended school days, or year-round schooling.

”We have to continue to apply expectations and pressure to get kids back,” said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, adding the state also should be making plans to address student mental health. He said it also may be wise for the board to revisit the issue annually to determine whether targets need to be adjusted in light of “what’s happening on the ground.”

State education leaders said they are reviewing board members’ feedback before taking the next steps.

Adria Watson can be reached at adria.watson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @adriarwatson.